Bryan Caplan  

Talking More to Mark Krikorian

PRINT
Basketball teams compete with ... Myth of the Rational Voter:...
Last week the Center for Immigration Studies' Mark Krikorian answered my post-debate questions.  Here is my delayed response.  Mark's in blockquotes, I'm not.  My original questions for Mark are in italics.

[Caplan's] argument was that treating foreigners in any way differently from Americans was invidious discrimination, morally identical to "mandatory discrimination against blacks, women, or Jews." He seemed to confine his comments to employment, but if not allowing a foreigner to take a job in the United States is morally impermissible, then isn't denying him the vote also impermissible? If welfare programs exist, how can he be barred merely because he came here last week?

I didn't say that treating foreigners in any way differently from Americans is morally identical to mandatory discrimination against blacks, women, or Jews.  I said that mandatory discrimination against foreigners is morally identical to mandatory discrimination against blacks, women, or Jews.  I am appealing to the common moral intuition that the moral obligation to help others is subject to numerous caveats, but the moral obligation to leave others alone is subject to few caveats.

And also I wish more people on his side of the debate would emulate him -- but they would not be more influential thereby. Caplan's honesty about his rejection of the American people's right to limit access to their country is, in fact, what most of the high-immigration Right and Left believe, but are not forthcoming enough to express publicly.

In the short-run, Mark's probably right.  I'd be more persuasive to undecided Americans if I spent my time arguing for extra H-1Bs.  In the long-run, though, principled rejection of the status quo often works.  "Liberalize Jim Crow" failed; "End Jim Crow" triumphed.  And even in the short-run, radicals like me make moderate reformers more palatable by moving the goalposts. 

[Caplan] ends his post on a sour note:

Though anti-immigrant, I doubt Mark actively hates them. What I sense, rather, is strong yet polite distaste for foreigners. He's like a husband who makes nice with his mother-in-law, yet groans whenever he finds out she's visiting. The key difference: Mark is hypersensitive. The husband feels fine once his mother-in-law is out of his house, but Mark's distaste for foreigners is so intense that he wants them out of his entire country.

This is one of those "when did you stop beating your mother-in-law?" questions, so I'm not going to protest my lack of "distaste" for foreigners. But it does highlight the inability of open-borders folks to be able to appreciate how those who disagree with them think.

Opposition to immigration is not an exotic position I've only heard about in books.  I have spent my life around normal Americans with conventional views about immigration.  When they feel free to speak their minds, they routinely voice distaste for foreigners.  They voice distaste for foreigners' failure to speak English, for their accents, for their distinctive clothing, for their religions, for their customs.  They voice distaste for foreigners' failures and successes

I don't know what drives Mark.  But I know that what drives normal Americans to oppose immigration is distaste for foreigners.  Normal Americans have told me so many times.

Ironically, on the immigration issue Caplan fails the very "ideological Turing test" that he himself devised.

Questions for Mark: Does he doubt that white Southerners' distaste for blacks drove their support for Jim Crow?  If Jim Crow proponents denied that such distaste motivated them, would Mark believe them?

Turning now to Mark's responses to my questions.

How much would open borders have to raise living standards before you'd reconsider? Doubling GDP clearly doesn't impress you. What about tripling? A ten-fold increase?

How much less would gravity have to be to enable me to win a marathon? Hypotheticals like this are meaningless. And immigration policy isn't purely an economic matter in any case.

Actually, hypotheticals are one of the most enlightening intellectual tools human beings have.  The point of this particular hypothetical is to measure the intensity of Mark's opposition to immigration.  Of course immigration isn't "purely an economic matter," but you'd still expect there to be some price where Mark would relent. 

Suppose the U.S. had a lot more patriotic solidarity. In what specific ways would it be better to live here? 

Less animosity between races, ethnic groups, classes leads to greater social and political harmony.

"Greater social and political harmony" seems awfully vague.  And if Mark named specific countries that exemplify social and political harmony, many Americans would be unenthusiastic ("Wouldn't it be great if we were as harmonious as Canada?") or repulsed ("If only we could be as harmonious as Japan"). 

Aren't there any practical ways you could unilaterally adopt to realize their benefits? Are you using them?

I don't know what this means. I'm not being cute; I just really don't understand the question.

I mean things like: Moving to a low-immigration state or gated community, or joining a selective church or club.  Instead of complaining about immigrants, why not abandon politics and build a Bubble?

Do you really think low-immigration parts of the U.S. are nicer places to live? If so, why aren't more natives going there? Why don't you?

Some are, some aren't, but it misses the point. Both natives and immigrants will go where the jobs are.

Jobs are one factor in locational decisions, but hardly the only factor.  As Collier explains in his work on diaspora dynamics, immigrants have a strong tendency to move to places - even intrinsically unappealing places - full of co-nationals.  That's why so many Arabs live in Michigan.  Contrary to Mark, then, my question is relevant, and his lack of a confident answer is telling. 

Doesn't patriotic solidarity often lead people to unify around bad ideas? Think about the Vietnam War or Iraq War II. If so, why are you so confident that we need more patriotic solidarity rather than less?

All good things can have bad consequences. Love for your spouse may lead you to steal. Pride in your children's accomplishments may lead you to be an insufferable jerk around other people.

Right, so why are you so eager to increase patriotic solidarity above its current level?  You don't seem to have any empirics showing that the marginal benefit of additional solidarity exceeds the marginal cost.  Yet in our debate, you named national solidarity as a primary reason for tighter immigration restrictions.

By the way, Mark, what specific countries do you think have excessive patriotic solidarity, and do you advise these countries to increase immigration to solve their troubles?

I'm sincerely puzzled. How exactly is discriminating against blacks worse than discriminating against foreigners?

Black Americans are our fellow members of our national community and treating them differently because of their race or ethnicity is to admit to different levels of membership, something which is contrary to our ideal of a republic of equal citizens.

So suppose white Americans had long ago officially declared that blacks aren't members of our "national community."  Would Jim Crow have been OK then?

Foreigners are not members of our national community and thus are legitimately treated differently. They have human rights, but not civil rights. And those human rights do not include moving into my house without my permission.

No one's proposing that immigrants move into your house without your permission.  But under the status quo, immigrants can't move into my house without the American government's permission.  That's the heart of my case, and you still don't seem to appreciate it.  At risk of failing my Ideological Turing Test, you seem to think that my house is actually the government's house.

Suppose you were debating a white nationalist who said, "I agree completely with Mark, except I value racial solidarity rather than patriotic solidarity." What would you say to change his mind? Would you consider him evil if he didn't?

Many countries have an ethno-racial basis for their nationhood, like Japan or Swaziland or Denmark. They are, literally, extended biological families. American nationhood is more like a family that grows through adoption, and thus is not limited to people of a particular ethnic background.

The problem with white nationalists, black nationalists, and Chicano nationalists, as well as with the cosmopolitan who sees himself as a citizen of the world, is that they are all post-Americans. They may be evil as people or not, but what matters politically is that they reject American nationality. They are free, of course, to think what they want. But if they, like their predecessors 150 years ago, act on their conception of post-American nationality, then they should be punished by the duly constituted authorities.

Mark's answer, in short, seems to be: If white nationalism were our established national tradition, there would be nothing wrong with it.  But we have a different established nation tradition, and it would be wrong to change it.  Even the last clause, though, seems iffy for Mark.  Suppose Americans amended the Constitution to strip non-whites of their citizenship.  Would that be wrong? 

Suppose you can either save one American or x foreigners. How big does x have to be before you save the foreigners?

Another meaningless hypothetical.

Hardly.  The hypothetical is designed to measure the intensity of Mark's preference for American strangers over foreign strangers.  I fear he doesn't want to answer because (a) a big x makes him seem bigoted but (b) a small answer is inconsistent with his policy views.

If you could save either your child or x number of strangers, how big does the x have to be before you save the strangers instead of your child?

For my child, x>all the strangers in the world.  I would not however murder one stranger to save my child's life.  See, hypotheticals are revealing.

In what sense is letting an American employer hire a foreigner is an act of charity?

I'm not sure I get the question. It's not so much that admitting foreigners to the United States is an act of charity, though it might be. Rather, our basic disagreement is over whether the American people, through their elected representatives have the right to limit access to the U.S. by foreigners. I answer "yes," you answer "no".

The underlying premise is that people have a right to limit their charity to strangers, but don't have a right to stop strangers from trading with each other.  Legalities aside, immigration laws look like the latter, not the former.

Suppose the U.S. decided to increase patriotic solidarity by refusing to admit Americans' foreign spouses: "Americans should marry other Americans." Would that be wrong?

No. I would certainly be against such a policy, because the family unit is the basic component of society, the first of the "little platoons," and I think we should delegate to each other the right to bring in a spouse from abroad. But if Congress passed such a measure (which will never happen, since spouses of citizens were admitted without numerical limitation even after the 1921/24 acts, as they are now), and it were signed by the president (ditto), it would be legitimate, so long as it applied prospectively.
Interesting.  I was expecting Mark to say something like, "Such a law would be morally wrong, but we would still be morally bound to obey it."



COMMENTS (9 to date)
Eli writes:

I don't think he's very clear about when an individual making individual decisions becomes a group making group decisions. "We own the United States, and through our representatives we chose not to open our home, the U.S.A." he seems to be saying. I think he would say that "I" becomes "we" when we consider international affairs.

Brian writes:

"For my child, x>all the strangers in the world. I would not however murder one stranger to save my child's life."

Bryan,

Suppose your son had his finger on the button that was connected to a bomb that in the next moment or two would blow up x strangers. How big does x have to be before you would shoot your son with the gun in your hand?

Or suppose your son has an infectious disease and he has to leave the house to get cured, but leaving the house ensures that he infects and kills x strangers. How big does x have to be before you prevent him from leaving? I have a hard time believing your answer is x > all the strangers in the world.

Mercer writes:

" Instead of complaining about immigrants, why not abandon politics and build a Bubble?"

I find this a very strange argument. Caplan admits he lives in a bubble and likes it but he also wants open borders. Does it not occur to him that the more immigrants from all over world come the more difficult and expensive it is to live in a bubble?

Apparently he is indifferent to Americans with
lower incomes who can't afford to live in a bubble like he can. When more immigrants with values and lifestyles different from his the more expensive it will be to maintain his own personal bubble.

I think he is being irrational when he is promoting policies that will make his preferred lifestyle more difficult and expensive to maintain.

Rob Rawlings writes:

"How much would open borders have to raise living standards before you'd reconsider? Doubling GDP clearly doesn't impress you. What about tripling? A ten-fold increase?"

If you had to triple population via immigration to double GDP then you may end up with a situation where immigrants gain economically while the original population don't. This would clearly alienate the originals.

Why should individuals care about national GDP rather than their own real income ?

If I had to answer the question I would say something like:

If unlimited immigration was likely to increase my own real income by more than the psychic costs of immigration (more over-crowding, having to put up with annoying foreigners etc) I would support it.

As a BHL I might even add some psychic revenue to immigration (increased cultural diversity, allowing others to be better of etc).

But bottom line (and I am an immigrant to the USA myself): I think communities have a right to decide for themselves who lives in their "homes" just as individuals do.

Jeff writes:

If we have a moral obligation to leave strangers alone, and I think we do, strangers are also obliged to leave us alone in return. If you consider the burden that poor people and their descendents place on social services and thus on their fellow citizens (ie, taking their stuff; the exact opposite of leaving people alone), it seems perfectly obvious to me that Americans are completely justified in restricting immigration in one way or another in order to protect their own property.

Of course, the obvious rejoinder here from Bryan's side of the fence is that those social services should largely or completely be abolished, or access to them should be limited in some fashion. I agree. But no one since Calvin Coolidge has had any success in rolling back the size and scope of the federal government, so that argument doesn't hold much water for me. I mean, how is this to be achieved, exactly? An act of God?

Christopher Chang writes:

The underlying premise is that people have a right to limit their charity to strangers, but don't have a right to stop strangers from trading with each other. Legalities aside, immigration laws look like the latter, not the former.

Totally wrong, Bryan, and this has been pointed out in your comments sections numerous times. The US has very liberal laws re: allowing its citizens to help foreigners. For example, not only has Bill Gates not been stopped from "trading" with Africans, but the positive impact he has had, while operating fully within US law, is arguably comparable to that of entire governments. On a much smaller scale, I'm a US citizen currently working full-time in a foreign country for a foreign company that some other Americans have tried to whip up xenophobia against, yet nobody interferes with me.

Very few restrictionists have anything against charity; most restrictionists simply want it to be dispensed under a framework that protects the golden goose of American prosperity. Several of your colleagues, including Arnold Kling and Tyler Cowen, have migrated from positions close to your own to more moderate stances cognizant of the potential for radical open borders to destroy golden geese. You don't have to agree with them--indeed, I welcome serious attempts to prove restrictionist intuitions wrong--but your continued use of such a weak straw man after close to a decade is very strong evidence that you're incapable of countering the real argument.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Mandatory discrimination against foreigners is sine qua non of being a nation. For libertarians, it is immoral for a person to believe or act as if he belongs to a nation. Simply said, libertarians are calling for abolishing the nation-states. Naturally, conservative are not going to like it.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

immigrants can't move into my house without the American government's permission.

Your house exists within the national territory of US and is ultimately secured by the armed might of US Govt.

Chris writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for rudeness. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges and editing. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top