Bryan Caplan  

Debate Results

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The Intelligence Squared debate results are in. I performed near the peak of my ability, but my very best was not good enough for the live audience. Not by a long shot: Our side actually lost 4 percentage-points, and the other side gained 28 percentage-points, for a net difference of 32 percentage-points. 

My chief fear going into the debate was that many people would initially vote based on whether they identify more with the "pro-immigration" or "anti-immigration" side, rather than the actual resolution. Since a New York audience largely thinks of itself as "pro-immigration," we initially got a ton of "for" and "undecided" votes for our radical position. During the debate, however, the radical nature of the resolution became obvious, and the audience based its final vote on this realization. 

If you disagree, please highlight any arguments the "against" side made that wouldn't have been obvious to anyone who paid attention to the actual wording of the resolution at the time of the initial vote.

COMMENTS (44 to date)
Koz writes:

I didn't see the debate but I think you're on to something regarding the radicalness of your immigration advocacy.

The thing I don't think you've grokked yet is how your self-imposed bubble-ness undercuts your advocacy. I agree with you that there are important psycho-spiritual benefits to maintaining a bubble. But that's not the end of the movie.

Forensically speaking, more radical your position or objective, the heavier the onus on you to reach the frame of reference of your interlocutors as opposed to the other way around. If you insist on staying in the bubble, you can't reach the other party's frame of reference (in fact, you're deliberately avoiding it).

Kevin Monk writes:

I think you lost because you were on a team of one.

It turned into a debate about "work anywhere" on the proviso that it would be in conjunction with a minimum wage - argued for by your own side! That became the focus of the debate and from there on the audience were swayed by whether there could be a guarantee of minimum wage. They felt it couldn't. Debate lost.

Perhaps not your style but if your ambition was to win by any means then you should have argued from authority and latched on to your oppositions self confessed lack of economic credentials compared to your own. It's not pretty but may have been more effective. The debate moderator - John Donvan - didn't help either:

"Is that true?, Bryan"
"No it's not."
"Well, it sound EXTREMELY plausible"

Thinking about it some more, it really was a 4-against-1 argument. They're bad odds.

I think something very similar happened at Russ' minimum wage debate. Another factor is that the undecided might false identify (pretending they are more open minded than they actually are).

SJ writes:

Intelligence Squared and other high profile debates tend to phrase their resolutions in ways that are catchy but somewhat ambiguous. That causes problems when different debaters or the audience interpret the resolutions differently.

It would probably be helpful if, in addition to the catchy title, the organizers wrote a paragraph or so that very clearly stated the exact motion up for debate.

MikeP writes:

Actually, not witnessing the debate, couldn't such a result be predicted?

People like to think they believe that it is "self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," and "that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men." So that's how they initially vote.

But when they realize that actually following through on that belief threatens the standing protectionism they are used to, they will choose "us" over "them" every time.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

I don't agree with you on this subject, but you did a good job. I think your weakest point is assuming that while welfare rights etc. need not be given to these new working immigrants; it's not logically necessary, but it's probable, and hard for me to simply assume it's an independent issue.

It kills me how hard it is to get an audience member to give a simple, direct, informative question, as opposed to a rambling, incoherent speech.

cole writes:

I only came in at the end of the debate, and I was incredibly surprised when I saw the initial voting results, because the audience seemed a little hostile in their questioning towards the pro-immigration side.

It was also frustrating to see you address an argument and then see the other side repeat the exact same argument without addressing your point.

Overall I enjoyed the debate itself, but the audience was incredibly frustrating. After finding such well qualified people to debate you think they could also maybe find some better audience members.

George writes:

Bryan I think you may have opened the floodgates when you said open borders. Maybe it wasn't you but the opposition attached itself to the "any job anywhere" aspect of the debate and implied billions and 100's of millions of poor people coming to America.

Couple of problems though.

1.) The idea of billions coming here is laughable. Are there a billion jobs in America? The debate was take a job anywhere. There will only be a finite number of jobs available. (I believe Vivek touched on this but didn't really emphasis.) Not every employer will jump on this at once because just like the audience people will be risk-averse. Finally, if we actually let anyone take a job anywhere then we open up other borders too spreading the billions around the world.

2.) How many of these extremely poor people can actually afford to come here even if the borders were open?

Jim writes:

start off stating the obvious, the audience members don't look Native American. show them people vote with their feet. they think the number of jobs is fixed and resources are limited.

you avoided the welfare question from the statist, stick to your principles, abolish it and open the borders, you need to be more radical, stake out the extreme to try and get people (on the margins) out of the paradigm, like you did me a few years ago.

Your audience is the (open borders) web, not the (closed border) auditorium.

Jim writes:

and 1 more thing, if all else fails, go full RP at the debate and warn the audience about how high they build the fence, b/c one day we may all want to leave.

Insight writes:

It is absurd to argue there are only "a finite number of jobs." More people would certainly lead to more jobs.

Joe Teicher writes:


I don't think that Bryan thinks that billions, or at least a billion immigrants to the US is laughable.

Look at this.

By his math, open borders would bring 60-300 million immigrants to the US per year. That would get you to a billion immigrants living in the US pretty quickly.

Jim writes:

Insight sees that, but the avg audience mind sees a fixed pie of jobs to be 'taken' by foreigners.

regarding the change in voting, the same thing happened to Jim Grant on the sound money debate, this I^2 debate title is like a linguistic coup, ie federalist vs anti-federalist.

Max writes:

Watching your face as Vivek, the opposition, and the moderator all talk about the obvious merits of imposing an increased minimum wage was EXTREMELY entertaining.

For those who want to see what I'm talking about, go to 54:30.

It probably says something bad about me that I can feel so amused by seeing someone I like experiencing such obvious psychological anguish.

George writes:


I agree more people would definitely lead to more jobs.

But, in the context of the debate, I really don't think there would be a billion jobs in the U.S. maybe after a couple of decades of running the job-offer migration experiment but Bryan's opponents were suggesting there would be an instantaneous switch of 100's of millions or billions of people coming over all at once and competing for jobs and driving down wages.

@Joe Teicher

Under an open borders agreement where people from all over the world can come to the U.S. and compete for jobs then I agree maybe a billion or more could come. But, in the context of the debate the only way for someone to come to the U.S. was through a job offer.

I don't think there would be 100's of millions let alone a billion job offers if the U.S. would allow job-offer immigration. Certainly not at the beginning, I think it would take some time for the economy to grow to those levels.

Chris writes:

I wish there were a permanent Prof. Caplan facecam. Listening to the opening statement by the against side makes me cringe.

JohnB writes:

To me the argument was sealed with the point that allowing people to take jobs could double global production. If you don't want a radically higher standard of living for everyone because you want your neighborhood to be a certain way, there is no helping you as you are a blatant racist. If most of humanity feels that way, then we are doomed.

Debates are almost impossible to judge the important thing is to keep getting your message out there and let the chips fall where they may. With this format of judging, someone who is anti-immigration and wants the anti-immigration side to win would vote for the pro-immigration side first then switch their vote to the anti-immigration side.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

By the way, many Mexicans already recognize that getting a job in the US is hard now, so far fewer are coming. And I suspect those that are coming are more interested in their kids born in the US getting US citizenship and education than they are about making a lot of money for themselves.

Max writes:

After having found time to watch the rest of the debate, I think your problem stems from the fact that you argued against holding nationalist-socialist values to an audience largely composed of nationalist-socialists. Universalist and libertarian sentiments are alien to the human brain as it has evolved in the majority of humans.

Max writes:
If you don't want a radically higher standard of living for everyone because you want your neighborhood to be a certain way, there is no helping you as you are a blatant racist. If most of humanity feels that way, then we are doomed.

I disagree with both of these claims. I don't think racism is what drives people to oppose increased immigration; nationalism is the more likely culprit. Also, I suspect that many people who oppose open borders dispute the claim that they would result in "a radically higher standard of living for everyone;" instead, they believe (correctly, imo) that there would be winners and losers, and most of the losers would be people whom they hold to be more valuable (i.e. poor and middle-class natives) than the winners (rich people and foreigners).

I'm pretty sure most of humanity feels this way, but I don't think that means we're doomed. (I think we're doomed for other reasons. =P)

JohnB writes:

After watching a little more of the debate, I think the reason your side lost was that you're partner didn't have your back. At one point he says, "Can I disown my partner." It would have been a much better debate leaving him out of it and letting you go against them.

Also, I think you're response to the argument about wages being driven down could be snappier and clearer. That is really a key issue. Something to emphasize might be that real wages are determined by productivity. As worker productivity goes up everyone earns more and it is only fair to judge a policy's effectiveness on whether it is good for the whole rather than specific parts. You should be able to get pretty much everyone to agree that policies should be judged by net effects rather than special interests.

NZ writes:


Overall I enjoyed the debate itself, but the audience was incredibly frustrating. After finding such well qualified people to debate you think they could also maybe find some better audience members.
Maybe if they hadn't opened the borders of the auditorium and Let Anyone Take a Seat Anywhere...

JohnB writes:


I'm not trying to be particularly contentious here but I think that racism comes from the same place as nationalism, socialism, and tribalism. They are all "us against them" mentalities. Since "us against them" is a fundamentally hostile attitude it is destructive compared to classically liberal, open, and free ideas. I understand that people don't naturally think this way, but we need to evolve our thinking above the animal level here.

Gary writes:

I think Bryan is too much of a gentleman to admit that Wadhwa probably did more than harm than good for his side. And everybody here can see that.

First of all, his nonsense about raising the minimum wage and requiring immigrants to get the same benefits as everybody else created a huge weakness (as Kevin Monk said.)

Secondly, he took too much time making his largely ineffectual arguments in a not very articulate manner. That time would've been much better by Bryan. One sentence from Bryan was worth a thousand Vivek sentences.

Taeyoung writes:

I think that even if the average person could be persuaded that overall, their community would benefit from free immigration, they would still use the following personal calculus and oppose it:

Scenario 1
90% = my personal situation improves a modest 5% (lower cost of goods / interesting food)

Scenario 2
5% = my personal situation worsens a modest -5% (wages competed down by immigrants / immigrants' customs extremely irritating)

Scenario 3
5% = my personal situation collapses -50% (fired in favour of cheaper immigrant => cannot pay mortgage so house is foreclosed on => have to move out of neighbourhood I like)

Overall, if you play that out, the expected value is a modest improvement (1.75%). But many people are risk averse, so even if Scenario 3 is a long shot, they would prefer to avoid it. And if you deny that Scenario 3 is even a possibility you'll lose credibility.

A certain sort of person likes to mock middle Americans for worrying about foreigners taking their jobs (or "furriners" taking their "jerrrbs", when one is being particularly juvenile), but really, in a free market of course that's a possibility. That's kind of the point of a free market.

MikeP writes:

A certain sort of person liked to mock middle Americans for worrying about emancipated slaves taking their jobs, but really, in a free market of course that's a possibility. That's kind of the point of a free market.

Eli writes:

Somehow I doubt that 49% of any other group but libertarians are in favor of open boarders.

You made the case perfectly. Your debate partner did not. They exaggerated magnitude of negative impact on low skilled American workers. Make it clear that the possible cost to low skilled Americans is not "comparable" to the benefit of low skilled foreigners.

The other team was just a little better than the politician Benjamin Powell debated on the same topic.

Describe open immigration like it is anarchic and the vast majority of people will cheer and never think about it for more than 5 seconds.

Taeyoung writes:
A certain sort of person liked to mock middle Americans for worrying about emancipated slaves taking their jobs, but really, in a free market of course that's a possibility. That's kind of the point of a free market.

Or union employees worrying about scabs (or even immigrant scabs!). I may not like unions, but if you're in a union, it's completely rational to worry about that kind of thing and completely rational to oppose laws weakening union power, even if they would be overall welfare improving. It's puerile to make fun of people for doing what they can to protect what they have, and if your first resort is to accuse them of the moral equivalent of supporting slavery, you're not going to persuade many people.

Geoffrey writes:


I was cheering when you were speaking (unfortunately you could not hear me in DC). I agree - you were on the top of your game. too bad you only had 1/4 or less of the time to speak.

I cringed when your partner spoke. He went off on too many tangents. The moderator tried to get you off of the minimum wage but failed.

I thought your opponents kept repeating non sequiturs. (i do have some biases evaluating your opponents)

Hopefully some of the people will rethink your arguments.

former student

Gene writes:

Can someone (prof. Caplan preferably) please clarify why it's taken for granted that more workers means lower wages? More people means more demand for labor as well, not just supply, right? Even if all labor was the same. People aren't only producers, they're consumers as too.

NZ writes:


I get racism coming from the same (evolutionary?) place as nationalism and tribalism, but socialism? Isn't socialism essentially some variation on forcibly taking from the haves (even if the haves happen to include people very much like yourself) and giving to the have-nots (even if the have-nots happen to include people very much not like yourself)?

It would make sense, I suppose, if the socialism was underpinned by some kind of ethnic exclusivity (as I think I remember was said of South Africa, "socialism for the Afrikaners, capitalism for the Jews and Indians, and authoritarianism for the blacks") but that doesn't seem to be what you're talking about.

Anyway, I'd also point out that racism, nationalism, and tribalism have all also had religious roots buttressing their evolutionary ones, but as far as I know socialism has been from its inception closely tied with secularism.

Jon writes:

I think your assessment is mostly right. Just a few comments.

Though Vivek was generally helpful, it seemed like his opening statements didn't advocate the position. Saying we have effective open borders for tech industries in the context of general American stagnation, even among the high tech fields, doesn't advocate for increasing these conditions. You would have to argue against American stagnation to make this point more forceful.

Furthermore, I didn't see an effective response to Ron Unz's central argument about supply and demand. Perhaps more detail about the effects of women entering the workforce would have helped.

Lastly, accusing Newland of not caring about the plight of those in Calcutta seems like a cruel straw man. Maybe it could have been phrased better.

ajb writes:

Bryan's point that it will "cost less than nothing" is factually wrong. You may not agree about the costs or their justice but the fact that so many commenters on this blog have to claim racism or nationalism as reasons for opposing this resolution just shows how wrong Caplan's point is. If you have to impugn the motives of people who oppose mass immigration and dismiss their concerns and preferences as irrelevant you are not denying the HUGE costs to individuals. You are just saying their opinions and preexisting rights should count for nothing against your desires to do what YOU believe is right and just. Moreover, the political uncertainties about how the system would evolve are also costs, even if it all turns out ok. Economists are the first to teach that uncertainty is costly even if the expected payoff is positive.

MikeP writes:

if your first resort is to accuse them of the moral equivalent of supporting slavery, you're not going to persuade many people.

I am not accusing people of the moral equivalent of supporting slavery. I am accusing people of holding the rights and freedoms of "them" to a lower value than the rights of "us".

Those who support slavery hold the rights of "them" to a very much lower value. Those who support mandated union labor hold the rights of "them" to a somewhat lower value. Those who support protectionist immigration law hold the rights of "them" to a value in between.

What they have in common is that they don't believe in equal unalienable rights for all.

NZ writes:


I'd bet that in a lot of instances, the disagreement isn't over whether "they" should have fewer rights than "us," but what exactly those rights are, and in this case whether one of them is the right of "us" to maintain control over exactly who "us" is.

InSeoul writes:

What you did well: (1) Your opening and closing statements were succinct, well-delivered, and fact based. It was obvious you prepared and rehearsed these in advance. (2) You provided some evidence of the benefits of your position (double world production, for example). (3) You drove home the point that current immigration policy denies basic human rights to large swaths of poor people. (4) Your redirect on the question of women entering the workforce was excellent and well-received.

What you could have done better: (1) Your appeal to the human side of current policy seemed lost on the audience. You mentioned Haiti several times but provided no real life examples. If you want me to know the poverty of Haiti, then tell me a personal story of someone who escaped and found a better life here. I’ve never been to Haiti and therefore can’t relate to their poor living conditions. (2) Doubling world production seems nice, but how does that help me now and in the future. Unpack this concept for me because I’m intellectually lazy and can only see the “seen” (jobs lost to foreigners) not the unseen (more people means more opportunities). (3) Refute soundly the false but oft repeated scenario that everyone in the whole world will suddenly relocate to the U.S. and displace every American worker leaving a wake of destruction and misery.

Your partner seemed very unpersuasive and most likely hurt your cause. You would have done much better going solo. Also, in debates, style counts. Your opponents beat you on style.

David C writes:

I felt like it would've been a much better debate if Ron and Vivek hadn't been there. Although Vivek was pretty good towards the end when talking about the current state of the immigration system.

Your opening speech was quite good although I would suggest being more wary of arguing from libertarian moral values. At times, it feels like you're trying to convince a room full of philosophers rather than the general public.

You had a great section about how immigration has influenced your wages, but how things would be different if immigration was more level in all other sectors of the economy because your cost of living would be much lower. This was something you should have gone back to repeatedly and expanded on especially when Ron disagreed without actually refuting your argument.

That section was the only time I thought you did a good job explaining the theory behind why immigration probably doesn't hurt natives. If I hadn't been paying close attention right then, or wasn't already familiar with the theory, I would probably have come to the conclusion that Ron was making some excellent points (as the moderator also seemed to have). After that speech, however, there was just a lot of poor reasoning and pointless arguments for about a 50 minute period.

Your best moment was when you asked Ron if women have lowered the wages of men. He then kind of meandered around that before attacking something ridiculous Vivek had said. And then things got more convoluted when Vivek went into a long speech about basically nothing, so the argument was just dropped.

You could have gone back to that and stated that he never named a difference between immigrants and women. It's an excellent empirical example of your theory in action and you could have hammered that home. That's critical in debates. Do not let your opponent drop arguments ever. When you find something they don't have an answer for, stick to it and keep bringing it back up and force the issue onto them. Instead you kept trying to explain the theory from a bunch of different directions, but you never really took the time to go in depth with any of them, so it came out rather jumbled and incoherent.

Contra-almost everyone else here, I thought the moderator did an excellent job. He repeatedly asked the debaters to explain their arguments and not avoid questions, and did an excellent job rephrasing audience speeches into actual questions.

You kept attacking Ron for wanting to exclude foreign workers with his high minimum wage, which was correct, but at the same time, Kathleen was being much more open about excluding foreign workers, especially in her opening statement, and you didn't go after her for it until near the end when the moderator brought it up for you.

Your closing argument was almost pure philosophy that, phrased in the manner that you did, is most likely going to want people to find reasons that you're wrong. You should've been hammering home the errors in economic reasoning instead. Don't preach moral values at them, talk about how horrible something is, and then let them come to the conclusion on their own that it's morally wrong.

To quote from a great comment from one of your old posts:
"I spoke to a marketing guy who also does work for elections. ... He said marketers would never bring up points that strongly induce a person's negatives to go up." - ajb

Pick your best arguments and stick to them; don't meander. Don't let your opponents avoid them. You don't have time to go over everything so don't bother. And don't preach at people.

Bixel writes:

I believe the FOR side should have made more appeals to history and the audience's own immigrating roots. After all, the debate was held not far from Ellis Island, and most people in the room probably had an ancestor who came to the United States. And the influx in immigrants in the late 19th/early 20th century was our time of greatest growth -- a far cry from immigrants running the country to the ground.

I was shocked that the FOR side or the moderator never brought up the simple question: why shouldn't we afford the same opportunity to today's immigrants that almost all of us benefited from in the past.

You made a great argument for today's poor but should have made that emotional appeal!

AS writes:

I would have predicted this result in advance--next time, you should have us predict the result.

Amateur psychologist mode: You may have exacerbated the result by showing discomfort when others were talking about minimum wage, etc. by driving away the liberal humanist crowd that might be drawn to your position.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:


Do you accept the American Constitution?
Is a "protectionist immigration law" or restricted immigration or even no immigration unconstitutional?

The same document that speaks of unalienable rights
speaks also of We the People, and how does that comport with the libertarian slogan Lose the We?

MikeP writes:

Is a "protectionist immigration law" or restricted immigration or even no immigration unconstitutional?

Of course. The Constitution does not grant the federal government any power over immigration. Naturalization, yes. The importation of slaves, yes. Immigration, no.

That's not to say that such an amendment wouldn't pass if the government suddenly decided to act constitutionally. But even a constitutionally acting government can abrogate rights wholesale -- cf. the importation of slaves.

And the document that speaks of unalienable rights does not speak of "We the People". But even the "We the People" document gives Congress the power to control only citizenship, not immigration.

Art Carden writes:

The debate is on my "watch me" list, but I was surprised when I saw the results after seeing a few tweets on the debate from Emily Skarbek.

I agree with Bryan's intuition, and I look forward to seeing for myself when I get time to watch the debate. My guess is that a lot of people entered with broadly pro-immigration sympathies but then thought about just how radical Bryan's position is and then said to themselves "let anyone take a job? Maybe we should loosen controls on the labor market, but anyone? Let's not go nuts here."

I refer to this pretty regularly, but Lant Pritchett's Let Their People Come convinced me that labor mobility is not just good economics but also a moral imperative. I'll have an immigration post after I watch the debate.

Brian writes:


Given the poor outcome for your side on the audience vote, perhaps you will reconsider your tendency to argue for open borders on teh basis of justice for foreigners. Even if that claim is true, it's too abstract and removed from Americans' daily concerns to make a persuasive point. You have to argue more consistently for the benefit TO AMERICANS of the open borders and freedom to work idea.

JohnB writes:


I think I have a good answer about how socialism and nationalism/tribalism/racism are related. Let me know what you think.

1. Socialism always goes hand in hand with nationalism. No one ever argues that poor Americans as a whole should have their money redistributed to raise the standard of living of poorer Haitians. Socialist redistribution schemes always seek to benefit the in group; "us." "Us" always being the native tribe or nation. It was clear from the debate that everyone acknowledged that socialist programs would completely break down with open immigration.

2. The mentality of socialism is almost always we the "have nots" will take from them "the haves."

I think there are these two "us versus them" mentalities in socialism. The fact that the contradict each other is part of why I don't like the idea.

Socialism often goes with religion. Karl Marx's anticlerical position is just one variation. Other socialist programs have been friendly to religion as a useful unifier or neutral to it. After all the ideas of religion don't necessarily conflict with socialist ideas. Jesus said something like "It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven."

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