Bryan Caplan  

Immigration: My Eyes Work Fine

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Open Borders Day is Starting... Federal Student Aid Increases ...
Critics of my open borders advocacy often accuse me of intellectual blindness, of living in a fantasy world of my own creation.  So rather than rehash any of my arguments or review the academic evidence yet again, I'm going to celebrate Open Borders Day by listing the facts about immigration I see with my own two eyes.

1. I see immigrants - legal and illegal - working hard, without complaining, struggling to make a better life for themselves and their families.

2. I see immigrants - legal and illegal - contributing far more to the world than they could possibly have done at home.

3. I see natives happy to hire and patronize immigrants - and rarely fretting about these immigrants' legal status.

4. I see that people call me out of touch because I live in Fairfax instead of in a poor immigrant neighborhood.  But they don't think themselves out of touch because they live in America instead of the Third World.

5. I see that almost all natives break the law on a regular basis.  Almost everyone drives over 55 mph on the freeway, for starters.  But few natives feel guilty about breaking laws that seem unreasonable, and almost no one wants to crack down on natives who break such laws.

6. The typical illegal immigrant who "went back where he came from" would drastically reduce his family's standard of living and make the world a poorer place.  If following the 55 mph speed limit is unreasonable, so is following U.S. immigration law - to put it mildly.  But I see the same natives who break laws every day condemn illegal immigrants as criminals, and yearn to crack down on them.

7. If the typical low-skilled immigrant stayed home and tried to improve his political system, he would have near-zero chance of success.  But I see that natives are quick to condemn immigrants for failing to reform their polities.

8. Virtually all of the complaints leveled against immigrants also apply to many natives.  I see that native women who enter the workforce make life harder for native men competing for the same jobs.  I see that low-income natives who have children cost taxpayers money.  I see that young natives vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

9. These standard complaints about immigrants are widely viewed as a good reason to exile immigrants to their often wretched birth countries.  When the same complaints are leveled against natives, though, the standard reactions I see are apathy, fatalism, and even denial.

10. The standard complaints about immigrants are widely treated as good reasons to exile virtually all immigrants to their often wretched birth countries - even when the specific complaint plainly doesn't apply to many immigrants.  For example, when people complain about immigrant crime, I never see them say, "Since young males commit virtually all serious crime, this is obviously only an argument against young male immigrants."

11. Most arguments for immigration restriction are equally good arguments for government regulation of natives' fertility.  But I see that almost everyone favors immigration restrictions, and almost no one favors fertility restrictions.

12. I see that almost everything immigrants do makes their critics angry.  The critics are angry when immigrants work, and angry when they're on welfare.  The critics are angry if immigrants are visible, and angry if immigrants keep to themselves.  The critics are angry if immigrants increase housing prices and angry if immigrants reduce housing prices.

13. I see that human beings have a strong bias against out-groups - but partially restrain these biases to avoid social disapproval.

14. I see that, in our society, this social disapproval is unusually mild when the out-group is current illegal immigrants, and near-zero when the out-group is would-be illegal immigrants. 

Put it all together, and what do I see?  I see human beings without the good fortune to be born in the First World escaping poverty through honest toil.   I see these largely admirable people singled out for public scorn and legal persecution.  And I see that the reason for their ill-treatment is not that they're breaking the law, taking jobs, using welfare, or any other choice they make, but because the foreigners in our midst and the foreigners at the gates are the last easy outlets for out-group bias. 



COMMENTS (31 to date)
Massimo writes:

Each of these arguments can be used to make the case for letting disadvantaged adopted children live in a family home with the same care, privileges, and rules as biological children. In the past, Caplan defends preferential treatment of biological children on the basis of biologically wired behavior, but the same logic applies to national/ethnic groups. I don't see a moral distinction between preferential treatment of biological children and preferential treatment of demographic populations.

A lot of these arguments are just flat out silly. #11: no one is advocating for fertility restrictions because it's completely impractical at a policy level. The closed border advocates would absolutely like more managed and controlled fertility, but how?

Tim writes:

no one is advocating for fertility restrictions because it's completely impractical at a policy level.

Considering that forced sterilization was a common practice for a large part of the 20th century, I find your claims of impracticality to be dubious. Advances in medicine and technology have only made it easier to implement such policies in the future and on an even grander scale than before.

Pajser writes:

This topic opens large number of interesting issues. One question is, does Caplan advocate that borders are opened not only for citizens of Third World, but also for citizens of Norway or Luxemburg? I'm sure he does. What does it mean? Does it mean that he advocates removal of some fantastic job opportunities from poor Third world people (and even poor Americans) on similar way "the nativists" supposedly do?

Someone from the other side writes:

Pajser, there is indeed that risk.

However, as a highly educated Swiss, I find it very hard to make a case to move to the US (best case to move away is for Singapore). Given their comparably strong economies, I assume the story would be similar for Norwegians and Luxembourgers...

Brian writes:

This is of course what closed borders advocates say, and you demolish their arguments very thoroughly. They will also, of course, come up with new pseudo-arguments that don't work. I think they will continue to do so until you address their true rejection: that while globally, the total welfare/utility increases, locally they lose out and immigrants win.

Steve writes:

I'd still like to know the answer to the question I asked in the other thread:

If we eliminated the minimum wage and opened the borders today, what's your best estimate of what the U.S. population would be in 10-15 years?

Thomas DeMeo writes:

Ughh!

All of these points concern immigration in general.

Some immigration is good. Most thinking people already know that. Open borders doesn't mean that. It means rapid destabilizing population shifts.

I just can't take these ideas seriously until you deal with how much and how fast this can happen. Any stable society can add or lose only so many new people before the violence starts.

Matt H writes:

Sorry I'll take the bait. I actually do favor fertility restriction. However I don't favor coercion. Changing incentives so the slow and irresponsible avoid childbearing instead of embrace it is one way sure way we can increase economic growth, as we know national IQ and GDP per-capita are very closely correlated. I give to a charity that pays drug addicts to get long term birth-control.

http://www.projectprevention.org/

If you accuse people of not following their ideas to their logical conclusions you should be sure that's the case.

Slowing the rate of single motherhood is probably the best thing we can do to reduce poverty in this country. Again, I don't support coercion but changing incentives, you bet I support that.

So here's a question for you in Texas there 500k illegal's in the public schools, out of about 5mil. How much of my taxes are paying to educate kids those kids? Should we not educate the children of illegals? What happens when 20 million come in one year under open boarders?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Matt H,
If you accuse people of not following their ideas to their logical conclusions you should be sure that's the case.
I agree. But Bryan didn’t transgress. Notice what he said. He wrote:
But I see that almost everyone favors immigration restrictions, and almost no one favors fertility restrictions.
So by qualifying his statement with “almost,” he did not define away people with your view.

Tim writes:

How much of my taxes are paying to educate kids those kids? Should we not educate the children of illegals? What happens when 20 million come in one year under open boarders?

You do realize that everyone who lives in the US pays property taxes, even if it is indirectly through their landlord. Lease agreements do prevent them from feeling the full brunt of increases immediately but increases in property taxes are reflected in rental rates. The idea that those who enter the country illegally don't pay taxes is spurious. They often don't pay income taxes, but they pay have the fruits of their labor confiscated by the State in several way (payroll taxes, sales taxes etc.)

As an aside: I love when people complain about how their stolen money was spent instead of complaining about the original theft.

David Friedman writes:

Matt writes:

"Changing incentives so the slow and irresponsible avoid childbearing instead of embrace it is one way sure way we can increase economic growth, as we know national IQ and GDP per-capita are very closely correlated. "

I don't know whether your policy is good or bad, but your final argument is a fallacy of composition. Suppose a low IQ person would have a productivity half the average. Adding him to the population lowers GDP per capita—but it does so even if it does not make a single person worse off. Indeed, it does so even if it makes other people better off--just not enough better off to balance his effect on the average.

WT writes:

As I've said, to no answer, the notion that "billions" of people could just move to the First World and "take a job" is an alarmingly delusional assumption even for an economist. Where do all these billions of jobs come from, given that we do still have unemployment here? Why wouldn't billions of people moving here simply bring their current standards of living and unemployment with them? Rather, why wouldn't they actually end up far worse off, if they moved here in such numbers that they crashed the system and could no longer find food in a familiar environment (farming, trading, hunting, etc., in a particular geography)?

James writes:

Caplan's arguments address a lot of the obviously motivated reasoning of immigration opponents but Brian is on to something in the comment above.

Government restrictions on the fertility of natives constrain natives. Refusing entry to potential immigrants constrains foreigners. For people who believe that governments should act as if the welfare of natives is much more important than the welfare of foreigners, there is no inconsistency in favoring strict immigration controls and opposing fertility controls.

The central issue is whether or not governments should act as if the welfare of natives is much more important than the welfare of foreigners or treat all persons equally regardless of where they were born.

John Strong writes:

@Matt H,

... in Texas there 500k illegal's in the public schools, out of about 5mil. How much of my taxes are paying to educate kids those kids?

Matt, imo Bryan addressed this argument preemptively. It applies to poor, propertyless natives as well as guest workers. I pay a pretty hefty property tax bill every year for a home I own in Austin, Texas, in spite of the fact that I homeschool, never once used the god-awful public school system in Austin and now no longer live in Austin. I would rather not pay for your kids education either, but if you live in Austin, I have no choice.

The cost of schools is an externality, and I can not for the life of me see how the arguments for prohibiting guest workers based on this type of externality are any different from other forms of protectionist argument.

I see an economist willfully blind to a fundamental axiom of his discipline: value is determined by supply and demand. A world in which human life is precious is a world in which human life is scarce. Also, human misery is like heat: in the absence of barriers it will flow until it is evenly distributed. You want the whole world to look like downtown Dhaca, Bangladesh?

Dean May writes:

Conceding the authority of Caesar to allow legitimacy to an individual solely on the basis of their place of birth also of necessity concedes authority to Caesar to allow legitimacy of anyone for any reason. Ergo the explosion in recent years of police checkpoints to examine travel permission papers. If you clamor for immigration control you are clamoring for more police checkpoints.

It is also supremely ironic to complain of Mexicans "invading" the SW when we illegally stole the SW from Mexico in 1846

MingoV writes:
If following the 55 mph speed limit is unreasonable, so is following U.S. immigration law - to put it mildly.
If following the speed limit is unreasonable, so is following... contractual agreements, laws about theft, laws about harming others.

It's an absurd argument. "Billy shoplifted so why can't I spray graffiti on a wall?"

Mark V Anderson writes:

This is a good post. Bryan makes a lot of good points about how immigrants are helping this country more than they hurt it. I agree that our current immigration laws are too harsh, and I wish we allowed a lot more in legally (especially since many of these would likely be the same people who now come in illegally).

But the fact that immigration currently helps us more than it hurts does not imply that allowing everyone in would be a great thing. Just like a supply and demand graph. We are currently below the equalization point where we benefit more than we are harmed. But allowing an unlimited number in would likely put us over that equalization point where more harm than benefits occur.

It is possible that immigration would not increase a lot if we eliminated all restrictions. But it also possible that we would have catastrophic results. I think we should greatly ease our restrictions and see what happens.

MikeP writes:

value is determined by supply and demand.

No, price is determined by supply and demand. Value would be price times measure. Raise both supply and demand, and value is raised commensurately.

A world in which human life is precious is a world in which human life is scarce.

The greatest value of a human life accrues to the living person himself. The second greatest value of a human life accrues to those whose decision it is to bring that life into the world -- i.e., parents. These effects utterly swamp other determinants of the value of human life. It is pretty obvious that the more life there is, the more value there is.

Value is determined by supply and demand. This is not a principle of capitalist economics or even human economics; it is a fact of life. Increase or decrease the concentration of dissolved nutrient in a pool covered by water hyacinth and observe the change in root mass to leaf surface area. The plant reallocates the resources it spends to acquire sunlight and nutrient. Compare root surface to leaf surface ratio of plants of the Arizona desert to the root surface to leaf surface ratio of plants of the Brazilian rain forest floor. Relative abundance of sunlight and water determine what plants will spend to acquire those inputs. Ant colonies allocate worker types according to demands for defense (warriors) and abundance of nutrient (workers). See E. O. Wilson, "The Ergonomics of Social Insects" (AER).

People will eat people when other food becomes scarce. A world in which human life is precious is a world in which human life is scarce. Sorry.

Mike H writes:

@Malcolm

Have you ever payed less for something than you were willing to? Then it's value is greater than it's price. The supply/demand curves intersect where the value to the company to make something is meets with the maximum value for enough people.

The people where the value is less won't buy it, so everyone who does buy it at that price places a value equal to or greater than the price. Price is not necessarily value.

When you increase the supply of people you are also increasing the demand for people because that extra person will add his skills and add his wants/needs.

The total global GDP/capita has not risen because of a scarcity of people. It has risen with a booming population and is on net greatly benefited by it when property rights are respected.

DeservedApplause writes:

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Chris Wegener writes:

I finally read a post of yourw with which I largely agree.
I do have a nit to pick with #11. If more people would vote democratic our country would be in much better shape economically.
The economy has performed far better under Democratic Administrations than under Republican Administrations, particularly since the second world war.
Why then do you continue to promote and prefer Republican Policies?

Chris Wegener writes:

Sorry, I meant point 8.

NZ writes:

1. They complain plenty! Isn't that what all those marches and demonstrations are about?

2. Because of whom?

3. Well...

4. "They" aren't asking people in the Third World to let in people from the Fourth World--or wouldn't be.

5. But immigration laws do seem reasonable. In fact, they seem extremely important.

6. See #5. Also, our duty is first to our fellow citizens: to make our country--not the rest of the world--less poor.

7. I see this as a red herring. Why can't he just stay home and do his best like everyone else?

8. Indeed. Native women should consider the merits of housewifery, low-income natives should not have their (often unwed) childrearing so subsidized, and enfranchisement should be limited to married heads of household.

9. My reaction is that we should reform our culture and laws as well.

10. I think a more narrowly defined limit on immigration is a reasonable starting point. It can be widened later.

11. I believe native fertility should be influenced in a better way by policy. Remove childrearing subsidy to low-income people, increase childrearing subsidy to the middle-class.

12. I don't think critics are angry if immigrants start businesses that create jobs, so long as they don't take grant money to start these businesses that might otherwise go to native entrepreneurs. But yeah, maybe critics are just angry. Don't they have a right to be?

13. Indeed.

14. Uh, ok.

Jeff writes:

A few comments/questions I don't think you have sufficiently addressed:

1) What is your response to people worried about a large underclass in this country. (I think most Americans would prefer to live in city more like Sidney than Rio de Janeiro. I think one of the reasons for our social welfare system is to not have a large underclass.)

2) What is your response to the problem (I am not sure of the actual extent) of children of uneducated immigrants being less industrious and having a higher propensity toward crime.

3) What is you response to Americans worried about their wage being cut in half (or more) if forced to compete on an international market.

These are the main questions I wish you'd respond to in a future post.

P.S. Are there any current countries with truly open borders or citizenship?

AS writes:

Points 3 and 13 are the most insightful. Thank you for sharing those.

Rusty writes:

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Jameson writes:

The thing that discourages me when I read comments on this topic is how thoroughly unashamed people are to be nationalists. As NZ writes, "[O]ur duty is first to our fellow citizens: to make our country--not the rest of the world--less poor." It still blows my mind that people view leaving folks alone as somehow an act of charity, but there it is.

Floccina writes:

Could an argument be made that borders should never have been closed and that we need to increase immigration over the next 30 years to reach open boarders but that a rapid change would lead to too much chaos?

NZ writes:

@Jameson:


The thing that discourages me when I read comments on this topic is how thoroughly unashamed people are to be nationalists.
Conversely, one might be discouraged at how unashamed people are to be globalists.

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