Bryan Caplan  

Open Borders: My Vox Interview

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The noble Dylan Matthews interviewed me on open borders for Vox.  Here's his write-up.  Here's the full interview.  We shall overcome.




COMMENTS (13 to date)
Carl writes:

I'm Irish. Why does Bryan Caplan wish to finish off the Irish nation?

Well, to be fair, he does offer his reasons. Why he thinks it's a matter of "we shall overcome" is a little harder to understand.

The great spiritual struggle of Bryan's life is to replace the Irish population with another one? Because he foresees a relative increase in GDP? Ok....

zed writes:

You think people inside a border are the same as the people outside ... but they're not. Why, are they a different race or a different color? No. They don't share the same stories, the same parables, the same geist. The human condition is not people in isolation, it's people in group. You cannot identify people without consideration of the group. It's not one or the other, it's both. In your theory, people are interchangable, but people are only so malleable to group membership. Your theory of people is incomplete. Your opponents in this debate have the intuition that this is true, although (perhaps) not the theory. The clear evidence of group membership, group selection, and the importance of group mindset and shared belief is as plain as the nose on your face.
I don't get why this plain evidence doesn't cause you to re-examine the flaw in your position. What you call "citizenism" is a crude rhetorical device against the obvious nature of shared group identity as an aspect of the human condition.

So, how will you replace group membership in your 'ethical' insistence on interchangability of individuals? At best, you should argue for a framework that can be more flexible in its borders than geography, but it's an uphill battle; locality in space remains the best proxy for locality in mindset. Regardless, it's plainly irrational to model reality as monotone identity.

--z

Christophe Biocca writes:

I like the structure of the responses to objections:

  • Economic reasoning contradicting the objection
  • Historical evidence to the same effect
  • Compromise policy that's still way less restrictive than the current situation

However, I'm doubtful it will convince people who rail against H1B visas and the like. Nativism doesn't go away, and only citizens get to vote.

I think the best chance for open borders is that one of the many smaller nations currently adopting Common Law and free markets in order to attract more capital and grow will eventually attempt an open borders policy for much the same reasons.

It only takes one to start a trend.

Christophe Biocca writes:

zed:

locality in space remains the best proxy for locality in mindset.

I sure hope you're joking. Or maybe you're just very fortunate to live in a bubble isolating you from your fellow citizens. Maybe your political positions are centrist to the extreme, so you feel like you have some shared identity. But a libertarian, or even just the average economist, will share relatively few beliefs with their geographically closest neighbors, compared to the beliefs shared by all libertarians/economists around the world.

More fundamentally, you assume that open borders is only a good idea if there aren't substantial differences between people of different nations. The economics work just as well either way (modulo the complications from not sharing a language, but that's less of a concern with every passing year). Whether meaningful shared social identities exist at the nation state level is not relevant to the argument he makes.

It's up to you to show how it would be a showstopper.

Christopher Chang writes:

Christophe, take a look at Argentina. It has practiced open borders since 2003. Yet, instead of converging toward at least US-level GDP as one would expect from Caplan's claims (note that its demographics are similar to America's), it stays at "minus 65 percent GDP".

Caplan has not shown any interest in fixing whatever else it is Argentina's doing wrong that's blocking the promised torrent of prosperity. It's as if he doesn't believe there's a trillion dollar bill to pick up after all, but he keeps lying in an effort to increase the chance of punishment of Americans he doesn't like. (I'm running out of more charitable explanations for his behavior. If he was anything other than a charlatan, he should see Argentina as a golden opportunity.) I suggest that, if your interest in open borders is driven by a desire to help humanity rather than a desire to punish (I mean, "overcome"), you should part ways with Caplan and focus on making already-existing open borders work properly.

Sweden is another country that is trying, and so far failing, to get these ideas to work well.

Mark S writes:

@Christopher Chang
Argentina has been doing relatively well since 2003. They've started from a complete mess, and their situation is precarious now, but that likely has more to do with past financing agreements (from 2001) and the global financial crisis. I would be very interested, though, in evidence that its been immigrants hurting Argentina's economy. Such an argument would be extremely novel and if it were well-backed with evidence could be an extremely important piece of economic research.

From the wikipedia article: Economy of Argentina:
"Expansionary policies and commodity exports triggered a rebound in GDP from 2003 onwards. This trend has been largely maintained, creating over five million jobs and encouraging domestic consumption and fixed investment. Social programs were strengthened,[37] and a number of important firms privatized during the 1990s were renationalized beginning in 2003. These include the Postal service, AySA (the water utility serving Buenos Aires), Pension funds (transferred to ANSES), Aerolíneas Argentinas, and the energy firm YPF.[38]

The socio-economic situation has been steadily improving and the economy grew around 9% annually for five consecutive years between 2003 and 2007, and 7% in 2008. The global recession of 2007–10 affected the economy in 2009, with growth slowing to 0.8%.[2] High economic growth resumed, and GDP expanded by around 9% in both 2010 and 2011.[2] Foreign exchange controls, austerity measures, persistent inflation, and downturns in Brazil, Europe, and other important trade partners, contributed to slower growth (1.9%) during 2012.[39] Broad-based recoveries in the agricultural, construction, auto, and energy sectors led to 4% growth in 2013.[40]"

Christophe Biocca writes:

Christopher Chang:

Argentina's doing fine with open borders

Considering how awful some of their policies are compared to Chile (and how broken their currency is), I'm actually shocked at how closely the 2 countries follow each other.

Open borders will not fix bad government policies. Caplan's advocacy of open borders is specifically:

  1. Labor is ridiculously more valuable in the 1st world than anywhere else.
  2. This is in large part due to the better economic policies of the former.
  3. Fixing governments is near impossible.
  4. So let's let people move from nations that have awful governments to places that have better governments.
  5. Doing this will unlock a ton of productivity in the people who were stuck under terrible economic policies

Also you completely misundertand the nature of the GDP boost. It's an absolute boost, not per-capita. Per capita GDP may go down, given the influx of poorer/less-skilled people (the denominator increases faster than the numerator).

Christopher Chang writes:

@Mark S,

We appear to be in agreement that it would be a very good thing if conditions in Argentina improved to the point that other countries became actively interested in copying its policies.

It would almost certainly be enough for them to simply approach parity with the economic performance one would normally expect given their demographics. Other countries of comparable size, like Taiwan and South Korea, have accomplished that from a far lower starting points than Argentina, without open borders. So if open borders is a net positive, this should be especially easy. There would be no need to make enemies of ordinary Americans.

But Caplan has so far been totally uninterested in this. His priorities betray a belief that open borders, at least without Singapore/UAE-style restrictions, is not positive sum at all. (And Singapore's leadership recently concluded that the limited economic gains from its experiment with liberal migration were not worth the social costs. These are the same guys who continue to engage in congestion pricing even though a movie has been made about throwing toll gantries into the river (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Money_No_Enough_2 ), so this isn't populism, they genuinely believe the math doesn't work.)

A further comment on "executive action" is in order here. When studying for his citizenship exam, Kurt Godel noted that he found a hole in the Constitution and could prove that, sticking to the formal rules of the system, America's government could be transformed into a dictatorship without popular consent. Nobody ever recorded what his proof was, but Godel is not the kind of guy I would bet against. It follows that America's lack of dictatorship to date has been due to a mix of luck and social capital. In calling for executive action contrary to the clearly expressed wishes of a supermajority of Americans, Bryan Caplan is now working to destroy this capital. (And note that, however strong the overall case is for helping foreigners more, the responsibility of the *American government* is to attend to the common interest of Americans. Individual citizens like Bill Gates have no problem helping foreigners on a massive scale while adhering to American law.)

David Condon writes:

The Facebook comments have been mostly negative so far. I fear this article may be too in-depth for the average Vox reader. But it's good to have a more mainstream outlet sharing the view. Repetition of the idea itself is key.

Christopher Chang, I believe you misunderstand the argument. The argument is that open borders is extremely beneficial to the immigrant and neutral for the existing population. In terms of GDP per capita, if there is no benefit to immigration, a rich nation who opens its borders should regress to the mean. If there is a negative impact, it should regress more quickly. If there is a positive impact of the one described then a nation will stay fairly flat, not take off.

Argentina has stayed in line with the other countries in south America except for a huge spurt and huge crash that left them even overall in the 90s. But they're not a rich nation.

A better example would be Switzerland which is much richer than most of Europe but has had positive growth since joining the Schengen agreement in 2008.

Christopher Chang writes:

Whether something is "neutral for the existing population" can be more accurately judged by said existing population than by any single person playing around with a mathematical model. Why else do you think markets tend to beat central planners? And even if the American/British/French/Swiss (did you somehow miss http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/10/world/europe/swiss-voters-narrowly-approve-curbs-on-immigration.html ?)/etc. people were systematically irrational about this, that simply points to an opportunity for countries of more open-minded people to exploit. The ethical thing to do is to work with those open-minded people to achieve your vision.

There is no excuse for advocating "executive action" here. There is no excuse for supporting systematic lying to the voter bases which have been the foundation of some of the best modern governments, when all indications are that telling the truth and sticking to mutually consensual actions is a superior strategy if his claims are correct. Whether he fully realizes it or not, Bryan Caplan has crossed a line and is now traveling down a path to violent conflict.

His saving grace may be that he's unusually open about his thinking, which allows those around him to point out to him when they think he's wrong. There is no shame in trying to do the right thing, and then changing one's course of action after being convinced by others that it wasn't the right thing after all. But can he turn around in time? By any measure, he is playing with fire in a way that he has never done before.

Christopher Chang writes:

Christophe:

No, I'm not misunderstanding anything here. You guys are preaching "double world GDP"; if you're right about that, a return to near-US prosperity is compatible with lots and lots of immigration to Argentina from at least other Spanish-speaking countries. I'll grant that a different benchmark may become appropriate if the distribution of source countries changes radically toward the exceptionally poor, but given factors like cultural proximity and Argentina's generally low profile, this seems unlikely to happen unless Argentineans explicitly try to make it happen.

Regardless of what you may think about the ease of fixing governments, it's well-established that the kind of reckless dictatorial action being advocated by Caplan, running obviously contrary to the government's design principles despite being formally permitted, has an exceptionally high risk of going a long way to break a working government. This has happened quite a few times in other countries, and the distribution of results cannot be said to be anything other than catastrophic. (Note that this is entirely independent of whether open borders itself is a good idea or not. Process matters.)

Or if you really think that thanks to incredibly bad luck, the same Argentinians who are enlightened enough to support your brilliant open borders policy when almost nobody else will, and who also actually achieved near-US-level prosperity within living memory, are somehow destined to not fix other trivial but crucial economic policies that tons of other countries get right, how about Sweden? It's a rich country by any measure. And its population also voluntarily consents to a very liberal immigration policy... well, at least as I write this. I don't know how much longer that's going to last; you may have to act quickly to get them to revise their policies to actually become neutral for the current citizens, because right now everyone can see anti-foreign sentiment skyrocketing there where it practically didn't exist before.

Christophe Biocca writes:

Christopher Chang:

You guys are preaching "double world GDP"; if you're right about that, a return to near-US prosperity is compatible with lots and lots of immigration to Argentina from at least other Spanish-speaking countries.

Compatible, yes. A cause of, no. For global GDP, the massive gains come from the fact that someone is moving from a country where the returns to labor are minuscule, to one where they are much higher. Tracking GDP per capita as a benchmark will tell you nothing since the people moving in will almost inevitably be at the bottom of the income distribution of the country they move to. People who don't are already let in by our immigration system for the most part.

Regardless of what you may think about the ease of fixing governments, it's well-established that the kind of reckless dictatorial action being advocated by Caplan, running obviously contrary to the government's design principles despite being formally permitted, has an exceptionally high risk of going a long way to break a working government.

So, this country has an executive that:

  • Engages in warantless wiretapping against most of its own citizens, sometimes hiding this activity from the legislative and judicial branches.
  • Unilaterally declares wars, without seeking the approval of congress.
  • Has repeatedly been countermanded 9-0 by the Supreme Court for taking blatantly unconstitutional actions (Recess apointments, most recently).
  • Still claims the power to drone strike Americans abroad without having to answer for that to anyone. And got the author of that legal opinion onto the second highest court in the US.
  • Has cracked down on whistleblowers and on the journalists who work with them in ways not seen in modern memory.
  • Potentially used the IRS against political opponents (the jury's still out on that one).

But the real danger to checks and balances of this country is the president maxing out the asylum quotas, and stopping deportations / issuing pardons, both of which are firmly within his power. Right.

I'm not a fan of unilateral presidential action, but I don't see why this particular behaviour is so much worse than anything else he's done. Of course, since it polls terribly, and has zero plausible deniability, I'm 90% certain the president won't do it (and hence I suspect Caplan's position is mostly a rethorical "This is what I'd do if I were president").

Or if you really think that thanks to incredibly bad luck, the same Argentinians who are enlightened enough to support your brilliant open borders policy when almost nobody else will, and who also actually achieved near-US-level prosperity within living memory

Argentina is a poor country, right in line with the rest of South America. They've destroyed their currency repeatedly in the last century. Their embrace of open borders (for Mercosul citizens specifically, it's not global), is simply due to the fact that the wealth gap is a lot smaller, so it's an easier sell. With 200 countries out there, someone's bound to get it right some of the time.

how about Sweden? It's a rich country by any measure. And its population also voluntarily consents to a very liberal immigration policy

It's also the country least suited to unlimited immigration, with the enormous welfare state they have.

because right now everyone can see anti-foreign sentiment skyrocketing there where it practically didn't exist before

Sweden's historically been struggling with large scale emigration. Anti-immigrant sentiment is hard to maintain when you can't even keep your natives in. Swedish attitudes are simply reverting to the mean.

But let me pass over these why nots, and make my case why the US is the best fit for an open borders policy:

  • It already has a large and diverse population. There's less latent identity-based nationalism to overturn.
  • It already has large amounts of illegal immigration. Creating a permanent undocumented underclass is pretty bad (especially if you don't like empowering the underground economy). The alternative, massive deportation, is even worse.
  • It has a relatively weak social safety net, and more skepticism of welfare than other countries. This makes it more adaptable to a large scale influx of working poor.
  • Open borders is the policy the country followed for the first century of its existence. Not just that, but the power to control immigration isn't even a federal power (unlike granting citizenship). Immigration restrictions were part of the original 20th century progressive agenda (along with a bunch of other terrible policies). Open borders is therefore part and parcel of correcting the actions of this movement, which pushed the US out of its more libertarian path.
  • I'd like a mostly-free (at least) country to be the world superpower for the sake of future generations. In the long run, population matters. Open borders is the only rights-respecting mechanism for the US to assure its economic/military dominance for the foreseeable future.
Christopher Chang writes:

* I'm having trouble finding an original source on this, but the descriptions I can find indicate that Argentina's open borders policy is not limited to Mercosur, and in practice it's definitely had *some* immigration from countries outside the region lately. Though this is mostly a technical point, since even if it's currently permitted I'd expect them to change the law if e.g. suddenly tens of millions of Africans tried to come for some reason.

* The broader point about Argentina is that your main practical bottleneck is citizen consent, and you already have it there. The practical value, for your cause, of getting it back to near-US prosperity is enormous. You should not be looking for excuses to not try to facilitate that, especially when many of you have relevant expertise. (Conversely, when Bryan *continues* to claim that "open borders hasn't been tried", that reflects very, very badly on him.)

* And if you really think open borders is especially suitable for the 21st century US, your job is to persuade enough of the American people. (Nothing wrong with focusing extra effort on "young elites" in the process.) You have NO business calling for dictatorial action when it has become clear that the legislative process won't yield results for a while. (Especially when the legislature has been biased in your favor!) Failure to retract such a call invalidates EVERY practical recommendation you have about American governance (doesn't mean you're always wrong--reversed stupidity is not intelligence--but any citations of you as a source can be immediately dismissed).

I don't claim US governance is perfect. I share your disgust for warrantless wiretapping, anti-whistleblower practices, and several other things you mention. But even with all that, the US is still a great place to live in practice. The wide-ranging "presidential fiat" action being requested by Caplan is of a sort that has a real chance of going a long way toward wrecking that. (Again, note that this has little to do with open borders itself; it's the unprecedented combination of scale and unpopularity that matters here.) Your 90% confidence that the president won't do it is a credit to the president, not a defense of Caplan.

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