Art Carden  

Immigrants and their Motivations, Part 2

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Thanks to David for his very kind words. I've enjoyed my EconLog stint and will resume more regular writing for Forbes.com as well as a new gig with DepositAccounts.com in January. This isn't quite my last post; that will be published later today.

In response to my post "Immigrants and their Motivations," a reader directed me to this post in which Tyler Cowen notes that immigrants aren't as libertarian as natives.

This strengthens but does not save the case for restricting immigration. As Bryan has pointed out several times, restricting immigration is itself a restriction of liberty. I also suspect that in light of Alesina et al.'s result on ethnic heterogeneity and welfare states, a libertarian immigration policy will make reduce support for the welfare state. Finally, Bryan's student (and David's co-author) Zachary Gochenour is working on a dissertation about the political externalities from immigration; in a working paper, he and Alex Nowrasteh showing that "this fear is largely unfounded."

tl;dr: More immigrants might mean less liberty on some margins, but restricting immigration itself violates liberty. I think we would be freer on net with easier immigration.


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COMMENTS (17 to date)
Tom writes:

A free flow of immigration across national borders would mean an equalization of wages worldwide. The average wage worldwide is less than half of US wages. I don't think you will get much support by Americans for a reduction of their wages by half so that your liberty to hire cheap labor to mow your lawn and clean your house is not restricted.

Pajser writes:

There are many aspects of the migration. Unfortunately, migration hurts the poorest of the poor people. For instance, if you employ Tanzanian physician he'll be better off, you'll be better off, but hundreds of his patients in distant Tanzanian villages who barely found money to educate and employ medical doctor will be worse off.

Don't ignore these people.

Carl writes:

[Comment removed for rudeness.--Econlib Ed.]

Nathan writes:

Pajser:

It seems to me that you're ignoring a lot of factors in coming to that conclusion. The major one is that you're treating the number of Tanzanian physicians as static. In reality, it is almost certainly affected by their ability to immigrate. A world in which no doctors can move to richer countries produces far fewer doctors than one in which some percentage do. Your comment is the equivalent of saying that states could increase revenue by continuing to operate a state-run lottery and simply not paying off winners, ignoring the fact that the number of lottery players would drop dramatically.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

The greater the supply of labor, the greater the division of labor, and thus the greater production due to comparative advantage.

For example, the immigrant nanny helps the native mom have a full-time job as a biochemist.

Pajser writes:

Nathan, it would have sense if the problem of Tanzania is lack of interest in study of medicine, because young Tanzanians have more attractive opportunities. But it is not. Their problem is lack of money to employ and especially to educate people. It is the fact, but it is also logical, isn't it?

Tom writes:

Mr. Econotarian,

You may have greater total production worldwide, but the marginal productivity of US workers will fall as the capital per worker ratio declines with an influx of immigrants.

An unrestricted flow of immigrants causing a rapid decline in the capital per worker ratio in the US would cause an equally rapid decline in the wages of US workers.

A dramatic fall in wages for Americans would not concern some of the writers on this blog because they are "staunch anti-nationalist" and against "nativism".

LD Bottorff writes:

Do we know that an unrestricted flow of immigrants would cause a rapid decline in the capital per worker? Did that happen during times of less restricted immigration in this country?
Thomas Sowell has described how some Korean immigrants work two or more jobs until they have saved enough capital to open their own store. So some immigrants bring or grow their own capital.
Most poor immigrants have enormous disadvantages in the labor market; they don't speak English and they don't share the culture. Their advantage is a willingness to work for less and live on less. I am not convinced that the immigration hurdles that current law establishes is needed to protect low skilled workers in this country.
But, I don't consider myself an open borders advocate. I enthusiastically support border security that protects me against incoming criminals and terrorists. I'm not so eager to be 'protected' from people who want to be gardeners, roofers, or dishwashers.

S writes:

Speaking for myself...

Since I am not actively trying to hire someone who can't immigrate here legally, and will almost certainly never need or want to, opening up the borders will increase my liberty by ~ 0%.

On the other hand, if immigration continues to push the political equilibrium to left then I will almost certainly loose some non zero amount of liberty (as I already have, for example, due to increased property taxes for bilingual education), if in no other form than increased taxes and diminished property rights.

But, alas, I am only one man, and perhaps there are more Americans who will gain more from hiring people they otherwise wouldn't even be aware of, then they will loose in taxes.

Alexandre Padilla writes:

I have yet to see a serious study showing that immigrants push the political equilibrium to the left and reduce liberty in a significant manner compared to the benefits of having more immigrants. T

Right now, the evidence shows that immigrants are a net benefit to the society. There are also effects of immigration that are not seen yet and will only be seen in the long run. I suspect effects that will be positive in the long run such as immigrants reduce the high school dropout rates among natives, particularly, minority natives. Immigration leads to a higher participation in the labor force for high skilled women and immigration leads to higher fertility rate among high skilled native women in the city. These two phenomena will have effects in the long run and I suspect they will be positive in terms of innovation, productivity, positive fiscal externality, etc.

It's difficult to see whether the movement toward less liberty of the political equilibrium is due to immigration. If we think that movement started or is more noticeable in the last decade or so since 2002 when the US was ranked 2 in terms of economic freedom compared to 2013 when the US now ranks 19, we would have to look at the data that show (1) that most immigrants who were eligible to vote voted for the left more than the right and (2) and their votes were significant enough to swing the election toward policies for less liberty as opposed to policies for more liberty or the status quo.


Daniel Kuehn writes:

It's really shocking that you think the fact that immigrants don't agree with your politics "strengthens" the case for not letting them in the country.

How in the world do you square this with your next post about fighting for liberal values in the face of an illiberal threat?

I'm really astounded you went out on a post like this.

Brian writes:

"I think we would be freer on net with easier immigration."

I agree with this, but it's something that has to be shown with evidence rather than just supposed or wished for. If we want freer borders, we have to identify the benefits and costs for us, add them all up, and show that the result is a net positive on a time scale that anyone cares about. I think the case can be made but it's not obvious or a slam dunk. As other posters have pointed out, wages might decline in the U.S. over a significant period of time and this is a substantial cost that cannot be ignored.

What is not, indeed never, valid is Bryan's argument that immigration should be opened up for the benefit of poor Haitians, etc. The only valid reason to change immigration policy in a democratic society is for the net benfit of those who are already here.

MingoV writes:
More immigrants might mean less liberty on some margins, but restricting immigration itself violates liberty. I think we would be freer on net with easier immigration.
The net freedom of the world would increase, but the net freedom of the USA would decrease. I'm selfish enough that I care more about the latter.
Mr. Econotarian writes:

Mr. S says "Since I am not actively trying to hire someone who can't immigrate here legally, and will almost certainly never need or want to, opening up the borders will increase my liberty by ~ 0%."

Perhaps YOU might not (knowingly) hire an illegal immigrant", but it is likely that goods you purchase were partially produced by immigrants of questionable immigration status. For instance if you eat chicken. Or tomatoes. Or you eat at a restaurant where the dishes are washed.

If you have a large number of customers, it is very possible that some of them are also immigrants of questionable status.

I personally tried to rent a house to a Danish couple, but the H1B visa had a problem and they got kicked out of the country. Another corporation lost me during a hiring process because a manager who needed to interview me had to spend a few months outside of the country because of his visa problem (this manager was from Germany), and during that time another company hired me. My company lost precious days when a Canadian technician was not allowed across the border to Detroit to fix a problem.

If you don't think you are affected by our immigration limitations, you are not looking closely enough.

Regarding political views of immigrants, I think it is silly to think that big government power to keep them out of the country is what is needed to fight big government.

Family members of my immigrant in-laws were held for ransom by communist guerrillas, so I can tell you they do not lean left.

Racists around 1900 could never have concieved that my milkmaid and waiter ancestors from sickly Scandanavia and lazy, Catholic, anarchist Eastern Europe would have progeny including scientists, technicians, and high-paid accountants.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Tom says "An unrestricted flow of immigrants causing a rapid decline in the capital per worker ratio in the US would cause an equally rapid decline in the wages of US workers."

A natural experiment happened from 1890's-1920's in the US when there was a higher percentage of foreign-born people in the US than now. Despite the tens of millions of immigrants, steel got made, railroads got built, airplanes took to the skies, skyscrapers went up in our cities.

There is no fixed lump of capital. Capital happens when wealth is generated and is invested. So if more workers raise productivity through comparative advantage, the additional wealth will be invested in capital making everyone even more productive.

Think a about this: you are stranded alone on a desert island with no communication means, no way off, and one billion dollars. Go ahead and try to invest that one billion dollars per capita in a useful way.

The poorest countries are not poor because they don't have enough capital per person. They are poor because their governments make productive industry and wealth accumulation impossible.

Look at China before Deng - nearly a billion people just able to stay alive (or not for the 20 million who starved during the Great Leap Forward). Then after Deng, those same billion people became a huge economy bringing hundreds of millions out of absolute poverty with very little outside investment or foreign aid. All that had changed was letting the free market work (a bit) and for wealth to accumulate and be invested in capital.

S writes:

Mr E.

I never claimed that I am not affected my our immigration laws, quite the opposite in fact (I even provided an example). My claim was that my liberty is not increased by unrestricted immigration . A claim you failed to refute.

Tom writes:

Mr. Econotarian,

I don't think the late 19th century and early 20th century is quite the natural experiment for open borders as you assume. For one thing, in 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented Chinese from immigrating to the US and denying citizenship to Chinese immigrants already in the US. The people of California felt that the 300,000 Chinese that immigrated to the US over the previous 20 years were driving down wages and they wanted it stopped. The act was renewed in 1892 and 1902 until repealed after WWII. In the 1920s all Asians were banned from entering the US.

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