Bryan Caplan  

Tabarrok on the Ethics of Immigration

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I just discovered this great old (2000) piece by Alex Tabarrok on immigration.  Highlights:
As far as wages are concerned the only difference between immigration and birth is that birth takes longer. When your neighbor has a child it as equivalent to a worker entering the country 18 years in the future. The wage argument against immigration thus also suggests that we should have prevented the parents of the baby-boomers from having children.
Let's now look at the immorality of immigration restrictions from other moral perspectives. I will consider four sorts of moral theory--utilitarianism which says that what is moral is to increase total happiness, contemporary liberalism which says that redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor is moral to increase equality, John Rawls's analytical liberalism which says that something is moral if it would be agreed to behind a veil of ignorance and finally I will briefly examine Christianity's perspective on immigration. Each of these moral theories strongly supports open immigration and opposes restrictions on immigration.

Let's begin with utilitarianism. It's easy to see that immigrants are benefited more from coming to America than natives are harmed. An immigrant from Nazi Germany or contemporary India, China, Ethiopia or Mexico is leaving a situation which may range anywhere from death in a prison camp, to death by starvation and back breaking labor to misery and death at an early age due to abject poverty. Even the poorest Americans live in better conditions than the typical Ethiopian or Chinese. On Utilitarian grounds, therefore, immigration is to be applauded because it increases total world happiness.

Contemporary liberalism or any ideology which asserts the importance of redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor would certainly favor open borders. Immigrants are, in general, much poorer than natives. Thus, even if natives are hurt by immigration they are hurt much less than by what the immigrants gain. Alternatively stated if you are in favor of any form of the welfare state then you should also favor open borders...

What about contractarianism and Rawls's veil of ignorance? The basic contractarian argument is that something is just if everyone would agree to it if they did not know information about themselves which might bias their decisions--information say about their wealth, race, or sex. To see the relevance, imagine that you did not know which country you would be born into. Would you be in favor of open or closed borders? There is some possibility that you might be born an American in which case we are assuming that you will be harmed by immigration and therefore will be against open borders. On the other hand there is a much greater probability that you will leave in a poor and perhaps dictatorial country in which case you will favor open borders. Moreover, not only is the probability higher that you will be the sort of person who favors open borders but the gain from open borders when you find yourself living in desperately poor country is much greater than the loss should you find yourself living in a rich country...

Catholic Social thought is clear on the issue of emigration and immigration. Pope John Paul II, for example, says in Laborem Exercens, that:

"Man has the right to leave his native land ... in order to seek better conditions of life in another country." Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens

More generally, the ethic of kindness to strangers runs throughout Christianity especially in the New Testament.

In Luke, a lawyer challenges Jesus, "I know that to inherit eternal life I must love they neighbor as myself," he says but "who is my neighbor?". Jesus, then replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan, the foreigner who stops to help the injured native even when his countrymen pass him by. Neighbors are not just the people who live next door.

Perhaps most explicitly, Matthew 25:35 tells us that at the great judgment "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him" the people of the world will be separated and those on the Lord's right hand will be told "Come you that are blessed by my father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, [and] I was a stranger and you welcomed me..."

Today the immigrant is like the "stranger" in whom Jesus asks to be recognized. To welcome him and to show him solidarity is thus a duty of hospitality and a fidelity to Christian identity. (Paraphrase of Pope John Paul II).

Tyler Cowen often says that Alex is the Carow Hall professor most likely to be correct.  Though I'm tempted to insist, "No, that's me," there's no one else I'd rather lose to.

COMMENTS (34 to date)
Jeff writes:

If contemporary liberals support open borders because of its redistribution-enhancing effects (and they do), why would contemporary non-liberals, being on the losing end of this pattern of redistribution, be supportive, also? You'd have to be pretty altruistic towards strangers, and aren't you always telling us that you aren't, and don't feel any moral obligation to be? Neither do I!

It is also odd for you to be quoting explicitly Biblical arguments. Are you a believing Christian? I doubt it. So why selectively make these Kingdom of Heaven appeals? If you don't find Christianity intellectually convincing (neither do I), then why are you basing arguments off of it?

Dan writes:

How universal do "Open Borders" advocates apply their ideology? Do they support open enrollment at their children's public school, no matter the over-crowding? Why should some be disallowed from receiving an excellent education simply because they do not live in the school's community and likely cannot afford to?

Of course the reality is that the best schools in the most affluent (and liberal) communities have strict residency requirements. Funny how that works, is it not? Is it rational to believe the economic law of Scarcity only applies to communities and not to nations? Certainly it is convenient to believe this way.

Thomas DeMeo writes:

The fact that birth takes longer is hardly trivial. The core dilemma of open immigration is how to deal with the inevitable rapid shifts in local populations, and the destabilizing effects on the local institutions that would occur. It is easy to simply state that the positive effect on the life of an immigrant would be greater than the negative effect on a local, but the demographic reality is that there are more people living under duress than there are living in prosperous stable communities.

Damien writes:

Jeff, the point of the exercise is to show that the open borders conclusion is quite robust to your choice of moral theory and that a rather disparate set of moral guidelines all support open borders. I don't think that Alex is Rawlsian, but that doesn't mean he can't tell us what the implications of this view are.

Many restrictionists self-identify as Christian, so it's useful to show how there are good arguments against immigration restrictions within their own tradition. No need to actually be a Christian yourself to do that!

John Fast writes:

Bryan Caplan: In order to change the hearts and minds of opponents of immigration, we need to understand their arguments, and (perhaps even more importantly) any real, unspoken reasons they have for their position. Do you think you could pass an ideological Turing test for that?

Jeff wrote:

why would contemporary non-liberals, being on the losing end of this pattern of redistribution, be supportive, also?
Why *would* they be supportive? They aren't! In case you haven't noticed, almost all conservatives are against increased immigration.
If you meant "Why *should* they be supportive?" the answer depends on what their moral principles (or pragmatic situations) are. So, first let's talk about which particular non-liberals you mean (and maybe what you mean by "liberal" in the first place).
You'd have to be pretty altruistic towards strangers, and aren't you always telling us that you aren't, and don't feel any moral obligation to be
Allowing immigration is not altruism, the same way not mugging people and not raping people isn't altruism either. (Do you question why people shouldn't mug or rape, even when they can get away with it?)

Dan wrote:

How universal do "Open Borders" advocates apply their ideology? Do they support open enrollment at their children's public school, no matter the over-crowding?
Why should some be disallowed from receiving an excellent education simply because they do not live in the school's community and likely cannot afford to?
FWIW, I believe in "separation of school and state" and as long as there are government schools I *do* believe in open enrollment for them, i.e. enrollment should not be based on where someone's address is. If you want to show that so-called "progressives" are often (usually) hypocrites, I certainly won't argue with you. (I'm not a so-called "progressive" myself; I'm a libertarian partly because I despise hypocrisy so much.)

Jeff writes:


Fair enough. I'd just like to see some acknowledgement that the tenets of classical liberalism are at odds with those of contemporary liberalism when it comes to immigration. It is simplistic to say, at least in this instance, that if you subscribe to A, then you must support B. Not when C is trying to use B to railroad you into D!

Cimon Alexander writes:

Someone born in the country is likely to adopt his home country's values. I am something of a pro-natalist, despite being an immigration skeptic, so I do respect the efficiency arguments about the desirability of a larger population. We part ways because you consider the sparse economic models only, and I take into account human culture and values.

For example, a country of 5 million Jews would be raving mad to allow the immigration of 5 million muslims in a short period of time. Their Jewish country would simply cease to exist as such. Sweden is a less extreme case, having a 1st or 2nd generation immigration population of 27% of their population. But already they see that the million+ middle-eastern muslims in Sweden are not adapting to the Swedish lifestyle quickly. Rather, the Swedish lifestyle must bend to accomodate the immigrants, and there are immigrant riots in the streets of Stockholm.

In this country, I suspect that allowing the immigration of 50 million third-world residents in the next 20 years will erode the first-world culture that the USA has. I also do expect that the political realm will be yanked to the left by the new electorate.

Open boders is just bad governance.

Andrew writes:

Thankfully Bryan Caplan has pointed out in his debate with Robin Hanson that we should not be using any grand moral theory, and should instead reason from concrete, specific cases.

Richard A. writes:

Kids on average, end up slightly better educated than their parents. Immigrants of today on average, are less educated the the natives.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

On the birth issue, birth also gives us workers that look like us by definition, immigration doesn't, and that bothers people. Sometimes it bothers people so much that instead of just letting people come who want to come they argue that we should choose the "best and the brightest" - whoever THAT is. And notice the people who talk like that never use the corollary. They never call the people that don't fall under their definition of "best and the brightest" the "second-best and relatively dim" or even "the worst and the dumbest".

No, they don't say that. Because that would give away the game.

Cimon Alexander writes:

In light of this discussion, Moldbug's claim that modern progressivism is an offshoot of Unitarian christianity is interesting to consider:

Also, Nietszche's critique of Christianity in "The Anti-Christ" can be adopted to critique the progressive immigration theory here on display. Nietzsche argued that:

1) Christianity is perverse in that it hates the strong and elevates the weak. Progressivism dictates that any society which grows strong erases itself by allowing an influx of the "oppressed" and giving them all votes.

2) Christianity is too occupied with an Ideal world and ignores the real world. Progressive economics is preoccupied with algebraic utility models that dictate more immigration, and ignore how humans actually interact with each other.

3) Nietzsche had a distaste for the Christian concept of morality (namely, the invention of good and evil) as a means to tame the best in man. Rather, he supported the traditional ethics of Aristotle and Buddhism which is concerned with "wisdom" and "living well".

Progressivism would rather be "good" than "well". Nietzsche would rather be "well" than "good". I have to agree with Nietzsche. Arguments about "goodness" always seem to boil down to some form of emotional argument and intimidation.

Finch writes:

> "best and the brightest" - whoever THAT is.

FWIW, it's not like measuring that would be hard.

Just charge some high price for immigrant visas. $500k or something - figure out the benefit of immigration and charge a price just short of that, using price discrimination if you can. After all, nobody else is making American citizenships, so we can charge a monopoly price and the benefits of immigration would accrue to the people making the immigration slots available (which seems to make the most moral sense). People would self-select and the best and brightest, broadly measured, would come.

Jess Riedel writes:

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought Rawl explicitly restricted his argument in A Theory of Justice to what goes on within a sovereign state. Therefore, your arguments would probably not convince a strict Rawlsian.

Of course, people have reasonably argued that this is an arbitrary restriction which allows one to unjustly avoid the immediate implications of generalized veil-of-ignorance thinking: we should care a lot more about helping the very poor in the 3rd world, and helping the less insanely rich within the US is a rounding error.

Andrew writes:


Just out of curiosity, how would your story explain the difference in opinion between working-class and middle-class Americans? A recent report has found statistically significant differences between working-class and middle-class Americans, both black and white, with the working-class opposing immigration far more than the middle-class. See this link.

Delphin writes:

Missing from this argument is any consideration of the effect of immigration on the host country.

Also. If your right to leave country A places an obligation of country B to accept you, why doesn't my right to seek shelter impose on Bryan Caplan and obligation to take me in?

NZ writes:
As far as wages are concerned the only difference between immigration and birth is that birth takes longer. When your neighbor has a child it as equivalent to a worker entering the country 18 years in the future.
I suppose that would make sense if wages were the only matter of concern within the immigration issue.

And also if people didn't age and retire and die. If I was 18 years older, with 18 years more experience than I have now, and 18 years more seniority at my position, and 18 years more salary history with which I could bargain if I had to, that would be very different than facing competition from an immigrant today.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Andrew -
I'm not sure what my comment has to do with the working/middle class views on immigration. I didn't propose it's the only thing that goes into the way people think about immigration.

I don't know what drives these views - I imagine it's a combination of labor protectionism, law-and-order sensibilities, maybe some racism,.... others? There's bound to be lots of explanations with varying levels of importance for different people.

guthrie writes:


LOL! True! Folks who use that argument never seem to have a good answer for 'then why not deport stupid, resource-sucking Americans?' Thank you for the chuckle!

Finch writes:

Surely the Rawlsian conclusion would be that immigration slots should be sold? After all, citizens have something of value, the ability to create immigration slots. Why would they give them away for free? I can understand citizenship being heritable (though maybe you could argue it should not automatically be so), but I don't understand why you'd just give it away to strangers when you could charge for it. More to the point, I don't understand why you'd be obligated to do so.

Seems like if I was to be indifferent to being on either side of an exchange, I'd want the price to be fair, not zero.

Finch writes:

And I think my comment about non-zero price is valid even if you believe that immigration provides net benefits to people who are citizens. Relative benefits and elasticities should come into play.

George Balella writes:

So if we get rid of state borders and replace them with Private Property; No Tresspassing signs how does that help?

RPLong writes:
In this country, I suspect that allowing the immigration of 50 million third-world residents in the next 20 years will erode the first-world culture that the USA has. I also do expect that the political realm will be yanked to the left by the new electorate.

I'm always baffled by this argument against immigration.

First, why would we have any reason to suspect that the USA's existing culture will not appreciably change over the next 20 years even in absence of immigration?

Second, while there are many wonderful attributes to US culture, it would take a surprising degree of complacence to declare that we have things *exactly correct* today and should therefore not change over the next 20 years.

Third, are the values held by current residents of the USA so different from foreigners that a 15% increase in population from immigration, over 20 years, will completely revolutionize our culture?

Floccina writes:

BTW the Good Samaritan helps a member of a group that despised his own group. That is a call for charity for individuals from any group.

Andrew writes:


Perhaps not revolutionize our culture so much as shift politics to the left. California went red nine out of ten times from 1952 to 1988. The Hispanic population of California was 19.2% in 1980 when Reagan won California with 52.69% to Carter's 35.91%, and in 2012 it was 37.6% when Obama won California with 60.24% to Romney's 37.12%.

Chris Koresko writes:

I don't think the application of Christian moral thinking to the immigration question is as clear as Tabarrok believes.

"Man has the right to leave his native land ... in order to seek better conditions of life in another country." Pope John Paul II

Note that this is a reference to emigration. Think East Germany, North Korea, et al.

The other Biblical passages Tabarrok cites are not particularly directed at people moving across national borders. Neither are they directed at the policies of national governments. Rather, they exhort individual Christians to treat people who are weak -- the widow, the orphan, the stranger -- with love.

Seems to me Tabarrok and Bryan Caplan would fail an ideological Turing test in which they had to pretend to be devout Christians.

Jeff writes:


I saw this on Reihan Salam's blog recently; it may be of interest in light of your last comment:

The rate of immigration to Argentina far exceeded that to the United States … In 1914 nearly a third of the population of Argentina were foreigners; in Buenos Aires, which dominates the political life of the country, half the people were foreigners. Among adults, the proportions were even higher — 72 percent in Buenos Aires, 51 percent in five of the most thickly settled provinces, 20 percent elsewhere. Among male adults (who as citizens would have been entitled to vote) the percentages were higher yet: perhaps four out of five adult males in Buenos Aires were noncitizens and thus automatically excluded from participating in the political life of the country. The immigrants were, of course, disproportionately concentrated among the working classes. Thus Argentina had a large proletariat and even a sizable middle class with not great attachment to the Argentine political system.

What is striking is that as this foreign-born working class population achieved political integration, it contributed to the shift from laissez-faire economic policies and integration in the global economy that had defined Argentinian political economy during its economic rise towards the mix of populism, authoritarianism, and import substitution industrialization that contributed to Argentina’s relative economic decline.

Here's more background from The Economist:

Argentina's story is that of a decline unparalleled in modern times. Blessed with some of the world's most fertile land on the endless pampas, Argentina in the 19th century attracted a flood of British capital and European immigrants. By 1913, having grown at an annual average rate of 5% for the previous three decades, it was one of the world's ten richest countries, ahead of France and Germany.

It has been downhill ever since. Exporting beef and grain to Britain ceased to be a passport to prosperity. But Argentina's leaders, starting with Juan Domingo Peron, a populist army colonel who ruled from 1946 to 1955, aggravated their country's problems by retreating into protectionism and financing generous benefits to workers by printing money. Four decades of political and economic instability culminated in the restoration of democracy in 1983. But the economy still languished: between 1976 and 1989, income per person shrank by more than 1% per year.

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:
As far as wages are concerned the only difference between immigration and birth is that birth takes longer.

Well, concerning matters other than wages there are huge differences, such as the fact that immigrants are mostly not kin, whereas children of neighbors mostly are (and in any case will be socialized to behave as kin).

And even if we restrict our concern to wages only (why?) local children entering the workforce are more likely to invest their surplus (capital) locally instead of remitting it to foreigners, which means children harm our wages less than immigrants.

Utilitarianism: obvious bunk; a suicide pact rather than a practical ethical system. Natural selection will rapidly weed out any serious utilitarians, so we can be pretty sure that people who propagandize utilitarianism today are either rent-seeking hypocrites or unselfconscious hypocrites (nobody really feeds her own children less so she can send the surplus to Somalia), possibly with the odd lunatic thrown in.

Liberal (leftist) redistributionism: a doctrine by which the envious and foolish are recruited into the armies of the amoral and greedy. Every mob of "liberal redistributionists" is lead by a junior Lenin or Castro (or Teddy Kennedy) striving to become "more equal" by promising to "redistribute" other peoples' money to his followers. To be sure, there are softhearted/softheaded redistributionists (or in today's America, "folk marxists") striving for the Revolution, but they can expect a bitter harvest.

Rawlsianism: a more obscure and involuted approach to utilitarianism, which attracts pseudo-intellectuals the way a Shell Pest Strip attracts hornets. Rawls' arguments, like Bentham's, neglect real people in favor of abstractions who do not face genetic selection pressure, and who rationally must operate on Bayesian inference rather than "from behind a veil of ignorance."

Christianity: serious Christianity (not the "social gospel") demands a different kind of civil society than we presently inhabit. As Gary North (who favors open borders!) explains, a proper Christian society would deal with immigrants in a way ours cannot. Anyone who argues for unlimited immigration on the basis of Christian morality ought to argue for many other policy changes as well (such as limiting taxes to 10% flat rate on income). People who invoke "Christian morality" to support unlimited immigration while neglecting all other Christian principles are hypocrites (mainly) or fools (sometimes) and should be disdained. They are like bullies who hit you and then exhort you in Jesus' name to "turn the other cheek!" (If the Pope has the last word on immigration, why not on abortion, huh? Get outta here with your hypocrisy!)

When asked to view immigration in the light of three "moral perspectives" notoriously propagandized by hypocritical self-seeking leaders to delude their followers (plus one "moral perspective" which is a hypocritical snip from a far more complex religious code) the acute reader should be persuaded against immigration, on the grounds that it must be bad if it is favored by so much drek.

shecky writes:


Is it such a surprise to find that Romney is no Reagan?

Andrew writes:


Romney won white voters by the same margin as Reagan, 20 points, as he won 59 to 39 in 2012, and Reagan won white voters 56 to 36 in 1980, the difference in the elections is that white voters were 88% of the electorate in 1980 compared to 73% in 2012. Hispanics increased as a share of the electorate from 2% to 10%, notably flipping California, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico among other states.

johnleemk writes:


Thanks for bringing the Argentina example to our attention. I'm not sure why it's supposed to illustrate anything meaningful about the risks of greater immigration, however. It demonstrates a correlation, and no causation. Is this supposed to be the "hard-headed" thinking which typically characterises the skeptic's position?

I've read a fair bit about the divergence in outcomes between the US/Australia and Argentina -- it's actually something that's fairly decently-examined, because the US, Australia, and Argentina in many respects resembled each other at the beginning of the 20th century, and an intelligent observer then might actually have reasonably predicted Argentina would continue to surpass or be on par with the US and Australia in the future. We know of course that this didn't come to pass, but I've never seen anyone put forth a serious argument that Argentina's downward spiral resulted from its immigration policies. Reihan doesn't really provide any supporting evidence for his claim that the correlation here was causal; he just asserts that it was. (Maybe the evidence is in Dahl's book, but it's curious that Reihan doesn't provide it.)

To lend this view credence, we need some evidence that the large proportion of immigrants in Argentina seriously destabilised its political and/or economic institutions. A cursory review of the literature here only yields some information about extreme left-wing anarchists who briefly operated in the 1930s, and who were eventually suppressed (they certainly don't seem very different from similar anarchists who were causing trouble in the US around the same time) -- nothing about new voters causing a dramatic sea change in Argentine politics.

Brian writes:


All the arguments given above depend on people acting on behalf of others (or in the Rawlsian case, on behalf of pretend people in an alternate reality). As I've said before, that's not rational nor moral. The obvious counterargument in each case is "why should I choose a worse outcome for myself on behalf of a stranger?"

The only valid argument for open borders would involve showing that those currently in the cou ntry are better off by letting unlimited immigrants in.

DK writes:

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Glen S. McGhee writes:

No discussion of immigration is complete without reference to the chapter of Gilbert W Merkx (Duke) in Constructal Theory of Social Dynamics, Adrian Bejan and Gilbert W Merkx, Springer, 2007. Contains the best critique ever, showing how we end up with what we do not want.

Nathan Muir writes:

Citizenship is a capital asset: I wonder what would happen if we made a market in its trade. As well as the state charging immigrants for the privilege this would allow citizens to sell their citizenship too.

This asset of citizenship gives entitlements that are really valuable. They include not just the right to participate in our labour market, but the right to share in the proceeds of taxes on land and capital (even though you don't own any yourself), and to gain from less intangible benefits such as those of physical security and of established institutions such as the rule of law.

Part of what's wrong with immigration is that this asset is being doled out for free, or is being simply taken illegally, which is an offence against our sense of property rights. Giving away the citizenship asset also seems to dilute its value for those who already hold it.

Except immigration is not given away for free, it's given away by politicians with an expectation of garnering future votes. Reminds me of corporations paying compensation as stock (options) and diluting the value of existing shareholdings, or governments debauching the currency.

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