Bryan Caplan  

Let Anyone Take a Job Anywhere: My Opening Statement for IQ2

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Let's Meet at the Southerns, o... Debate Analysis: Unz, Wadhwa, ...

"Let anyone take a job anywhere."  Given current policy, it sounds radical.  But notice: The resolution does NOT say "Let anyone become a citizen anywhere," "Let anyone collect government benefits anywhere," or "Let anyone vote anywhere."  The resolution says that no matter where you're born, it should be legal for you to accept a job offer from a willing employer.  The resolution parallels "Let any woman take a job anywhere," "Let any Jew take a job anywhere," or "Let any black take a job anywhere."  The resolution is not a request for charity or a demand for government help.  It simply asks the world's governments to stop requiring discrimination against foreign workers.

Most pro-immigration arguments focus on high-skilled, high-tech workers.  I outsource this topic to my partner, Vivek Wadhwa.  I'm going to focus on the vast majority of would-be immigrants who aren't high-skilled or high-tech: Haitian shoeshines, Nigerian waiters, Mexican gardeners, Bangladeshi farmers. 

Why on earth shouldn't we require discrimination against such foreigners?  The same reason we shouldn't require discrimination against women, Jews, or blacks: They're fellow human beings and they count.  Suppose the world's governments made it illegal for Ron to work anywhere but Haiti.  Would such laws be morally acceptable? 

Mandatory discrimination against foreigners is especially awful because most of the world's workers would earn vastly more in the First World than they do at home.  Moving from Haiti to Miami increases wages about 20 times.  That's not +20%; it's +2000%.

You could object that we're not obliged to help total strangers, but allowing people to accept a job is not charity.  It's minimal decency.  If Kathleen gets a job, and I don't slash her car tires on her first day of work, I'm not a "humanitarian."  I'm not starting the Save Kathleen Newland Fund.  I'm merely leaving Kathleen alone.

Sometimes, tragically, leaving others alone has enormous costs.  If someone has bubonic plague, a quarantine is the lesser evil; left free to roam, he could kill millions.  Would open borders wreck comparable harm on our economy?  No.  Every scholarly estimate of the economic effects of open borders finds ENORMOUS benefits.  Economist Michael Clemens, the world's top expert on the topic, finds that a free global labor market would roughly DOUBLE global production. 

How?!  Imagine a billion farmers stuck in Antarctica.  What would happen if we let them move to places where their labor's more productive?  They'd obviously be better off, but so would every consumer of food on earth.  Economically speaking, Haiti and Bangladesh are like Antarctica; they're countries where workers only realize a sliver of their full potential.  What's the best job you could get in Bangladesh?

But wouldn't open borders hurt American workers?  Some.  Take me.  I'm a native-born college professor.  Thanks to a massive immigration loophole, virtually any Ph.D. in the world can legally compete with me in the U.S. labor market.  As a result, about half of all U.S. research professors are foreign-born.  This has slashed my wages and career prospects.  An immigrant probably occupies the office I'M supposed to have at Harvard. 

Is my sad story a good argument for immigration restrictions?  Sure!  Oh wait, NO.  Professorial immigration is bad for me, but it's good for consumers of education.  If you're glad you didn't pay even more for college, thank an immigrant.  The same goes for every occupation.  Immigration of waiters is bad for native-born waiters, but good for diners.  Immigration of gardeners is bad for native-born gardeners, but good for home-owners. 

How can we judge the overall effect?  Keep both eyes on PRODUCTION.  When global production doubles, your standard of living is VERY likely to rise.  This isn't trickle-down economics; it's Niagara Falls economics.

What about the endless non-economic complaints about immigration?  Here's a rule: For any complaint you have, there is a cheaper and more humane remedy than mandatory discrimination against foreigners. 

Immigrants abuse the welfare state?  LET THEM WORK, but not collect benefits. 

Immigrants damage the environment?  LET THEM WORK, but tax their pollution. 

Immigrants vote the wrong way?  LET THEM WORK, but not vote. 

Immigrants hurt low-skilled Americans?  LET THEM WORK, but charge them an admission fee or surtax, then use the funds to compensate low-skilled natives. 

If you think these remedies are unfair, they're certainly LESS unfair than turning honest workers into criminals. 

Let anyone take a job anywhere.  It is the right way to treat your fellow human beings.  It will transform the world for the better.  And it will cost us less than nothing.



COMMENTS (16 to date)
Boromir writes:

I watched the whole debate. You were robbed! Logic failed. Baaaa!

Floccina writes:

I watched the debate and I thought that you did a great job considering the limited time that you had to talk. I think that the before vote was due to people not understanding the issue and I think that the end vote showed how selfish and nationalistic people are.

Tom writes:

Haven't had a chance to see the video yet but was extremely upset I had to miss it live (working two blocks away no less)! However, this opening statement kills it in my book...

johnleemk writes:

Tom and others, you can read a full transcript of the debate here: http://intelligencesquaredus.org/images/debates/past/transcripts/103013%20jobs.pdf

Jeff writes:
Immigrants abuse the welfare state? LET THEM WORK, but not collect benefits.

Immigrants damage the environment? LET THEM WORK, but tax their pollution.

Immigrants vote the wrong way? LET THEM WORK, but not vote.

Immigrants hurt low-skilled Americans? LET THEM WORK, but charge them an admission fee or surtax, then use the funds to compensate low-skilled natives.

Very imaginative solutions, Bryan. The problem is none of them will prove to be part of a durable equilibrium. Why do you think New Labour in Britain is pushing to lower the voting age to 16? Because it wishes to enlarge its share of the vote, of course, because it understands that young people typically hold sympathetic views. This same logic will compel either one or the other party in this rotten polity of ours to first allow all these low-skilled immigrants to vote (I can almost hear the cries of "Racism!" and "Jim Crow!" now), and then lead one or more probably both to propose new and more generous benefits for these individuals in order to obtain their votes, couched in language about helping them assimilate, achieve the American Dream, yada yada.

20 million low-skilled, low-IQ immigrants who probably don't speak English won't be reading Econlog and they certainly won't be privvy to any of your or your colleagues' eloquent discourses on the distorting effects of the welfare state, the minimum wage, etc, nor would they care, anyway. I guess the best that you can say about this situation is that at least the left will be able to buy their votes cheap.

Cosmo writes:
Moving from Haiti to Miami increases wages about 20 times. That's not +20%; it's +2000%.

To be accurate, it is +1900%.
Great article. I wish I lived in a world you're describing.

[broken html fixed--Econlib Ed.]

Chris H writes:

If you're right Bryan that most of the initial supporters misunderstood what they were signing up for then the only thing that surprises me is how many continued to agree with the proposition once it was fully understood! Indeed, that's a view optimistic enough that I think it's wise to be at least a little skeptical of this conclusion, if for no other reason than it's a bit too convenient for our side.

But to Jeff,

We know there is a REALLY big cost to keeping immigration out. Even if the exact numbers are still fuzzy, it's clear that the world is missing out of a TON of efficiency gains by current immigration policies. You're offering some rather uncertain potential costs in contrast. Consider on voting rights the example of US blacks. From the end of reconstruction until the Voting Rights Act, blacks were essentially shut out of taking part in American voting on any significant scale. This despite the fact that one party, the Republicans, had for decades a strong incentive to reverse this given the near universal support of Republicans from blacks (and the fact that blacks if they voted could probably flip several southern states like they did in Reconstruction). I really think you underestimate how stable these arrangements can be, especially if there is a lot of mistrust towards the group demanding a stronger voice (as there clearly is given how few people in the modern West support even moderately increased immigration).

"Let anyone work anywhere" is not the same as "open borders". "Open borders" means People's Liberation Army can walk anywhere they want, as they walked into Korea in October 1950. Well, technically, they were called People's Volunteer Army (PVA). So anytime libertarians say "open borders", it does sound like Chinese-Korean border in October 1950. But when you say "let anyone work anywhere", it does sound kind and friendly, and not inviting PVA. I hope you mean to be kind and friendly, and not inviting PVA.

MingoV writes:

If there were instantaneous teleportation so that foreigners could work in the USA and then go back to their country at the end of each work day, then most resistance to foreigners working in the USA would disappear. The immigration of tens of millions of foreign workers and their families will rapidly change our political and social structures. I doubt those changes would be for the better*, so I oppose unchecked immigration.

*Does anyone believe that the influx of immigrants would increase the relative number of libertarians?

MingoV writes:

If there were instantaneous teleportation so that foreigners could work in the USA and then go back to their country at the end of each work day, then most resistance to foreigners working in the USA would disappear. The immigration of tens of millions of foreign workers and their families will rapidly change our political and social structures. I doubt those changes would be for the better*, so I oppose unchecked immigration.

*Does anyone believe that the influx of immigrants would increase the relative number of libertarians?

blink writes:

This is a beautiful position statement; your opening paragraph alone is compelling. I wish more agreed. The only small quibble I can muster against the proposition is that some allowance should be made to screen for criminals. Maybe making the sponsoring employer liable for a few months would be sufficient, but it does seem that criminals, even known terrorists, count under "anyone".

I watched the debate live, and I was thrilled with how well you got your points across. And that was even though you were up against so many popular intuitions about immigration.

Just an inessential quibble: bubonic plague is not a good example for what you mean. In the Middle Ages it wiped out between 30% and 60% of the European population.

However, there are good reasons why it is not as dangerous anymore. The major route for infections via rat fleas would not work as well as in the Middle Ages if at all, and then treatment with antibiotics is not perfect, but rather effective.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bubonic_plague#Treatment

Maybe something like Ebola is a better candidate for a potentially devastating disease with no effective treatment.

Wallace Forman writes:

The problem with Bryan's argument is that it is too strong. The logic of "let women, blacks, and Jews work too" is also the logic of "let women, blacks, and Jews vote, collect welfare, receive education, and collect social insurance too." People sense that something has got to give, logically. They are faced with a choice of:

1) Discarding their belief in equal treatment
2) Discarding their belief in welfare/democratic/social insurance rights
3) Embracing universal welfare/democratic/social insurance rights
4) Deciding that discrimination according to nationality does not violate equal treatment

Most libertarians have no difficulty in embracing 2), and you will see some left academics defend 3), but for most people, 4) is the easiest bullet to bite, even if they can't come up with any particularly compelling reasons to defend their choice.

Jeff writes:

Chris H,

Look at the political history of Latin and South America, with its bloody communist movements and growth-strangling union factions. Castro, Chavez, Allende, the Perons, the Sandinistas, Morales, etc. Not a pretty picture by any stretch of the imagination. The success stories, such as they are, seem to be due to American tourism, anonymous banking, and a right wing Chilean general who staged a bloody coup and then spent the next several years disappearing his socialist political opponents. The first two aren't really replicable in the U.S. and the third is undesirable in the extreme.

Is it crazy to be worried that as the U.S. becomes more Hispanic, US politics will start to look more like politics in Hispanic countries? If so, isn't caution warranted? If not, why not?

As for the US, blacks in the south were excluded from politics for so long in part by a campaign of terror and intimidation waged by groups like the KKK, often in league with state and local law enforcement. I hope you're not suggesting anything like that! Isn't a border fence a little more humane than racist lynch mobs?

Manuel Álvarez writes:

I just wanted to add this interesting paper to the debate, because I think It sumarizes very well the smart defence of Bryan about immigration:

Why Should We Restrict Immigration? By Bryan Caplan.

http://econfaculty.gmu.edu/bcaplan/pdfs/whyimmigration.pdf

johnleemk writes:

Jeff:

Look at the political history of Latin and South America, with its bloody communist movements and growth-strangling union factions. Castro, Chavez, Allende, the Perons, the Sandinistas, Morales, etc.
The political history of Europe has not been pretty for centuries either. It would only be a slight exaggeration to call the continent essentially a near-constant battlefield between all sorts of monarchs and tyrants lasting from the first stirrings of the state, until about 1945. The last 70 years or so of peace and democracy have been a distinct historical anomaly. If you ask me, if we are to assess immigrant quality on the basis of political history, then there is just as much evidence to be skeptical of European immigrants as there is to be skeptical of any other sort of immigrant.

Is it crazy to be worried that as the U.S. becomes more Hispanic, US politics will start to look more like politics in Hispanic countries? If so, isn't caution warranted? If not, why not?
Just as crazy as it is to be worried, if you are an American in 1800, that as the US becomes more Germanic, US politics will start to look more like politics in Germanic countries. Pretty much every fear people express about Hispanic immigration was expressed about German, Irish, and Italian immigration when the US had open borders. Germans are the largest ethnic group in the US today and it seems like the US turned out pretty all right. The Irish and Italians aren't terribly far behind the Germans either. The Anglo-Saxons who founded the US are quite far behind in the demographic rankings, but the political system established by those Anglo-Saxons' ancestors still stands.

Now if you're a Marxist or radical leftist this is probably a bug more than a feature, but what reason do we have to believe that open borders with Hispanic or African or Asian countries would result in anything different from the Anglo-Saxon political system being maintained? Bear in mind as well that voting rights are actually much more restricted today than they used to be. In many US jurisdictions in the 19th century, you could vote in local and/or state elections even if you were a non-citizen resident.

A sociology would probably say there's a clear founder effect here: new immigrants assimilate readily to the political system they find upon arrival. You can argue that perhaps exceedingly large inflows would result in a different story, but the Germans, Italians, and Irish all had extremely large inflows into the US in the era of open borders, and the US political system was much more nascent and underdeveloped then. You can hardly argue the US's political institutions are more fragile and underdeveloped today than they were in 1800 or 1850 or 1900.

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