Bryan Caplan  

Crazy Immigration

German success is surprisingly... We aren't very Victorian, are ...
Under open borders, over six billion people would be free to move to the United States.  The population could increase by more than a factor of twenty.  And under real open borders, there's no mandatory waiting period.  If everyone wants to move the day the borders open, they're free to do so.

This seems like a crazy policy.  Imagine the chaos of six billion people migrating in unison!  Yet strangely, analogous policies are already on the books, and the system works so well few complain about it.

Consider: Under current U.S. law, over three hundred million people are free to move to my home town of Oakton, Virginia.  Population: About 34,000.  Thus, the population of Oakton could legally increase by a factor of almost 9000.  Under the status quo, moreover, there is no waiting period.  If everyone in the United States decides to move to Oakton today, they're free to do so.

How come no one's worried about the swamping of Oakton?  Part of the reason, of course, is that there's no pent-up demand to live in Oakton.  The deeper reason, though, is that housing markets would peacefully regulate migration even if the whole country suddenly decided Oakton was an earthly paradise. 

If demand for living in Oakton suddenly spiked, the market provides a short-run and a long-run solution.  In the short-run, a demand spike leads to higher rents and housing prices, discouraging relocation without depriving anyone of the right to relocate.  In the long-run, these higher real estate prices provide an incentive for construction firms to build more housing.  As a result, housing prices would gradually decline from their temporary high - and the population of newly-popular Oakton would gradually swell. 

Over the course of a decade or two, market forces could easily transform Oakton into a metropolis a hundred times its current size.  There's plenty of room to do so: Oakton has over 25% of the land area of Manhattan.  Is such a population growth realistic at the national level?  Yes.  If the continental U.S. had the population density of suburban Oakton, its total population would be about ten billion - more than the current population of the planet. 

True, as I've explained before, most people on earth don't want to immigrate anytime soon.  Due to diaspora dynamics, immigration from a country starts out low, then gradually snowballs.  It took about a century of open borders with Puerto Rico before half its people moved here.  My point, though, is that housing markets provide the necessary incentives for massive yet orderly migration.  These markets already quietly guide internal migration.  They are quite able to do the same for external migration.  Let them come, and we will build it - for the market price.

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Julien Couvreur writes:

Although Oakton is a good example of the principle of open borders, I think the Puerto Rico is better at addressing people's practical concerns. Oakton doesn't have a higher GDP-per-capita than most of the rest of the US.

Steve Sailer writes:

Oakton is in Fairfax County, Virginia, which has intensive zoning laws to keep the population limited. You can read up on the Department of Planning and Zoning regulations here:

From Wikipedia's article on Oakton:

"The racial makeup of the CDP was 74.46% White, 5.79% African American, 0.20% Native American, 13.83% Asian, 0.08% Pacific Islander, 3.08% from other races, and 3.56% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 9.65% of the population. ... According to a 2010 estimate, the median income for a household in the CDP was $167,512, and the median income for a family was $188,308."

You know, Oakton, Virginia isn't really like Puerto Rico at all ...

Matt H writes:

1. There is pent up demand to move to America, so we are right to be worried
2. So half of the PR population moved here in 50 years, none of them to Oakton, but PR is but one tiny nation, this seems like a really good reason not to open boarders with the rest of the world. The rest of the wold is about 2000 Puerto Ricos
3. Right now people are not allowed to live in Central park. Under open immigration enforcing the ban on creating shanty town in central park will require great force and coercion, after it's invaded by the entire nation of Guatemala.

You see Brian some of us recognize you for what you are, a man who wants to blow it all up. You want to break eggs to make an omelette.

Under open immigration
1. Social welfare programs aren't viable. Brian is happy about that.
2. Zoning and planning laws also aren't viable. Brian is happy about that.
3. Labor laws and minimum wages become harder if not impossible to enforce. Again Brian one of Brains stated goals.

The pent up demand for immigration here will destroy this country, its institutions, its laws, and customs. But that is what Brian wants.

Tom DeMeo writes:

What is missing from this silly example is the element of real desperation. Within a certain bound of social stability and pace, of course the market will deal with this and disperse populations in a rational way. Very nice and polite.

In the larger world, there are wars, political violence and natural disasters. Billions of people are living on $2 a day. They won't care about rents. They will show up and figure it out later. They will sleep outside. They will be desperate.

John Thacker writes:

Matt H:

Will all due respect, aren't you the one arguing that individual eggs must be sacrificed for your collective omelette? Under any use of that analogy I've heard (including people in favor of it), societal regulations, institutions, laws, and customs are the omelette, and individual people are the eggs.

Certainly the points that zoning keeps people from moving in are well-taken. However, I prefer Texas's model to California. Matt H and Steve Sailer obviously prefer California's (no doubt imagining themselves as the lucky haves in the Bay Area with expensive housing that no newcomer can afford.)

Dave Anthony writes:

1. Under the current tax and regulatory regime, America isn't nearly as desirable as anti-immigration supporters believe it is.
2. So? We also got Irish, Italians, Germans in the past in large waves. Did they destroy the fabric of society?
3. Right now people are not allowed to legally immigrate here. Under this system of closed immigration, enforcing this ban against poor immigrants who want to improve their life and the lives of their children requires great force and coercion to capture and deport immigrants under threat of violence.

Under closed immigration
1. We can't help those who are truly poor in the world. Progressives don't seem to actually care about that.
2. ??? Not sure I get why this is true, but zoning laws have often just been used as ways to segregate cities, so I guess I can see why someone who is against immigration supports them.
3. Probably true, but you'd have to be fairly economically ignorant to support minimum wage laws in the first place. Doubtful about labor laws being un-viable since our justice system would still be able to prosecute those found in violation of them.

Dan W. writes:

Point #1: Just me but I would have to find the opportunities in Puerto Rico very limiting before I would leave that island for the continental US. Economic reports indicate this is so. Who's leaving PR and who's staying and what does that portend for the future of the territory? Why should anyone be leaving in large numbers? Why could not PR be the Singapore of the Caribbean?

Point #2: The upper classes need not worry about the world's poor competing for their housing. The poor are priced out of their housing markets. No, the world's poor will be competing with America's poor for housing and resources. Understanding that the worlds poor find almost all of America to be rich and thus an improvement on their personal circumstance.

What the upper classes are mindful of is that growing concentrations of urban poor can tilt the political balance against them. As demands for services mount in cities legislatures look to the wealthier suburbs for tax revenue. This translates to higher taxes and higher fees. What guarantee might open-borders advocates provide to ensure this would not happen?

Jen Log writes:

Dan W.:

Bryan has noted in his talks on immigration that if one is genuinely worried about immigrants voting themselves benefits once they enter the country (which does not seem too farfetched since they often vote Democrat), it does not follow that they should restrict immigration. If the problem is that they will vote the wrong way, then just say that they cannot vote.
See: keyhole solutions

Jeff writes:

Jen, that's clearly not a stable long term solution, and Democrats would never agree to it in the first place.

NZ writes:

Are there "Open Borders" movements in Oakton to deregulate their intensive zoning laws and drastically increase the number and kind of people who may move there?

David writes:

Just a quick observation:

This "internal immigration" currently does happen, and if laws could be passed to prevent Californians from moving in mass to other states I am virtually certain they would be. Even when they don't vote, they change the social dynamic.

I think the interesting point is that it is not allowable to prevent Californians (who arguably destroyed one of the best states in the union) from migrating to your backyard, but it is considered acceptable to prevent Mexicans from doing the same.

MikeP writes:

David makes a good point about internal migration.

A similar point is that Arizona is the state with the most psychotic anti-immigration laws, yet most of the US-born voters in Arizona were not born in Arizona. Hence Arizona's actual immigration problem is an invasion of US citizens from far away who have no comprehension of the centuries of effectively open borders between Arizona and Sonora and want to slam them shut using any means the state has at its disposal.

Immigrants from another nation can at least be put on a very long path to citizenship -- or not even be allowed that path at all. States have no such defense from immigrants arriving from within the nation.

Steve Sailer writes:

I've pointed out this distinction before:

You can have libertarianism in one country; or you can have open borders with near-totalitarian zoning controls.

Adam writes:


To me, the clear reaction in this analogy of existing Oakton residents (or at least renters and the young, who aspire to home ownership), is that they don't want house prices being driven up.


Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top