Bryan Caplan  

Economism and Immigration

Phil Magness on Piketty's U.S.... The goal of monetary stimulus ...
In our immigration debate, Mark Krikorian heavily downplayed the relevance of economic arguments.  Instead of focusing on immigration's economic benefits, we should dwell on the damage immigration does to our national solidarity, culture, and politics.  His reply to my post-debate questions underscores this point.  Rather than challenge the astronomical estimates of the economic benefits of open borders, Mark repeats, "And immigration policy isn't purely an economic matter in any case."

But if immigrants have such baleful non-economic effects, why don't natives protect themselves by moving to low-immigration regions of the country?  Mark suddenly sings a different tune: "Both natives and immigrants will go where the jobs are."

Reconciling Mark's two claims is not easy.  If the non-economic effects of immigration are so important, why would natives primarily base their locational decisions on economic factors?  Yes, you could say, "Public policy should be based on immigration's non-economic effects, even though private choices largely ignore these effects."  But it's a bizarre position.  When people can escape genuine social ills by moving, they usually move.

The intellectually cleanest objection is that all the important harm of immigration happens at the national level, so moving to another part of the country is useless.  But this is silly.  Whatever you think about the overall effects of immigration, these effects are clearly far more pronounced in California, New York, and Texas than they are in West Virginia, North Dakota, and Nebraska. 

What's the logical inference?  The absence of a native exodus to low-immigration states reveals some mixture of the following:

1. Natives don't actually care that much about immigrants' non-economic effects; their complaining is nationalist cheap talk driven by Social Desirability Bias.

2. The non-economic effects of immigration are neutral or good.

The beauty of locational decisions, moreover, is that you can make them unilaterally.  If no one but anti-immigration activists appreciates the true value of unsullied American culture, they don't have to change multicultural minds to find a better life for themselves.  The activists only have to change their own addresses.  So why don't they?  This is especially clear for activists who own homes in California, New York, or DC; they really can escape most of the horrors of immigration and miniaturize their mortgages in one fell swoop.

P.S. Good for you if you're already asking yourself, "If libertarian policies are so great, why don't people move to the freest states?"  The quick answer is, "They do."

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Chris Stucchio writes:

I don't think your "why don't people move" argument really addresses Mark's point. Suppose jobs create positive utility of 100 and immigrants cause negative utility of 90. If immigrants cluster around jobs, there is still positive utility (of only 10 utilons) from living near jobs and immigrants. This doesn't change the fact that immigrants are creating negative utility of 90.

I also don't find the question of immigrants causing harmful national effects to be so easy to dismiss - if immigrants vote for Obama, how does moving to TX help me escape from Obamacare? I moved to India, I'm not even sure that will allow me to escape.

For the record, I'm a huge proponent of immigration and generally enjoy the company (and food) of non-Americans. But you really need to tighten your arguments.

Pajser writes:

"The activists only have to change their own addresses. So why don't they? "

Because many people see some value in staying where they are. Maybe that value is real: friends, extended families, satisfactory jobs, the advantages of big cities. Maybe it is only endowment effect.

Xenophobes have similar emotions toward immigrants like most people have toward rats. Now, imagine that number of rats in your quarter in Chicago increases - first you see one rat a day, then two, then dozens, hundreds and eventually thousands and millions of these daily. Eventually you'll move - but you'll rise your voice against rats much earlier than you make decision to move. And some people will stay even if number of rats is enormous. It doesn't mean their publicly proclaimed distaste for rats is cheap talk that caters to social desirability bias. The emotions of xenophobes are not laudable, but these emotions are real.

S writes:

People spend a lot of money, or a lot of time in a car, or both, making sure they dont live next to immigrants. Part of the definition of a Good School District is one that doesnt have many immigrants.

Shane L writes:

One thing I worry about is that there will be conflict between natives and immigrants that could badly damage society. I don't blame immigrants for that any more than the natives.

I look at modern history - Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Central African Republic, India, Cyprus, Burma, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and so on - and I see ethnic/religious/cultural groups fearing, hating and fighting each other. I guess Bryan has dealt with this somewhere so I'd welcome him to point me towards it.

Maybe the problem is persisting ethnic nationalism in many countries and a more inclusive civic nationalism can replace them. For now, though, I fear that major demographic change could provoke unrest, terrorism, even civil war. Jerry Muller has argued that the peace that persisted in much of Europe since the end of World War II was due to the massive expulsions and border changes at the end of the war that produced largely ethnically homogenous nation states. Mass-migration now challenges that homogeneity.

MG writes:

Whether, and if so how much, a "native's" overall utility is negatively affected by immigration can not be completely (or possibly even adequately) inferred from inter-state migration data. Firt, inter-state migration data does not normally differentiate the nationality of the mover. Second, intra-state moves (down to school district to school district level) would better capture those cultural, non-economic motivations -- I think what "S" above suggests. Finally, many among the many, many more who are not willing or able to move may have indeed seen their utility negatively affected.

Tom West writes:

People don't like change. They *really* don't like anticipating change.

Applies to cultural changes, economic changes, pretty much any changes. The economic growth that goes with it is pretty small potatoes in comparison.

Migration across the country is also change, so they're not going inflict that change upon themselves unless they're *really* irked (or really desperate).

Of course, once change has occurred, many find it wasn't nearly as bad as they feared. I would doubt more than 10% of Toronto's population pine for the pretty much exclusively white culture of 50 years ago.

Massimo writes:

This is a flippant retort. If a group of nationalist xenophobes wants a permanent geographic "home" centered on their ethnicity, Caplan argues they should abandon their current "home", forfeit the pretense of an ethnic "home", and choose another home on a completely transient basis. Apply this argument to Japan for example. The Japanese should move off their silly island to a temporary home where immigrants aren't interested in at this instant simply to score some debate point against Caplan. That is not a serious or even respectful argument.

Mr. Econitarian writes:

I tried to rent my underwater house to a Danish immigrant family. The father's H1-B had some kind of problem, and they got kicked out of the country. Thanks immigrant limiters for keeping those dangerous Danish from taking "our jobs"! One more empty house...

vikingvista writes:


"I look at modern history..."

But for some reason you exclude the most relevant history--America's period of essentially open borders and massive immigration. The real question you should ask is why those foreign problems you allude to *did not* happen here.

Bob Montgomery writes:
The absence of a native exodus to low-immigration states
But in the link you posted, to the "freedominthe50states" pdf, it shows that CA and NY have negative net migration (i.e., ignoring births/deaths/international migration, those states are losing population to the rest of the US).

How does that support your argument? There does seem to be a "native exodus," at least OUT of some high-immigration states.

(Texas admittedly does have net in-migration.)

Shane L writes:

Good call, vikingvista, my assumption is that the US and other New World countries like Australia and Brazil have inclusive "civic nationalist" identities, while Old World countries tend to have exclusive "ethnic nationalist" identities.

Will the Old World countries change? Perhaps! If not, we may see big ethnonationalist clashes between shrinking native and rising immigrant communities.

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