Bryan Caplan  

The Grand Budapest Hotel's Sublime Apology

Housing and poverty... Friday Night Video: Tom Palmer...
[mild spoilers]

Here's a great scene from Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Gustave, manager of the Grand Budapest Hotel, has just escaped from prison after being framed for murder.  Zero, an immigrant who works as the hotel's lobby boy, helped Gustave escape, but forgot to bring his employer's favorite cologne.

Gustave: I suppose this is to be expected back in... Where do you come from again?

Zero: Aq Salim al-Jabat.

Gustave: Precisely. I suppose this is to be expected back in Aq Salim al-Jabat where one's prized possessions are a stack of filthy carpets and a starving goat, and one sleeps behind a tent flap and survives on wild dates and scarabs. But it's not how I trained you. What on God's earth possessed you to leave the homeland where you obviously belong and travel unspeakable distances to become a penniless immigrant in a refined, highly-cultivated society that, quite frankly, could've gotten along very well without you?

Zero: The war. 

Gustave: Say again? 

Zero: Well, you see, my father was murdered and the rest of my family were executed by firing squad. Our village was burned to the ground and those who managed to survive were forced to flee. I left because of the war.

Gustave: I see. So you're, actually, really more of a refugee, in that sense? Truly. Well, I suppose I'd better take back everything I just said. What a bloody idiot I am. Pathetic fool. Goddamn, selfish bastard. This is disgraceful, and it's beneath the standards of the Grand Budapest. I apologize on behalf of the hotel. 

Zero: It's not your fault. You were just upset I forgot the perfume. 

Gustave: Don't make excuses for me. I owe you my life. You are my dear friend and protege and I'm very proud of you. You must know that. I'm so sorry, Zero.

Zero: We're brothers.

In my dreams, this is the apology the current proponents of immigration restrictions will one day make.  But I'll settle for open borders sans apology.

COMMENTS (26 to date)
Sorge Diaz writes:

Really? It is not a question of disagreement, but you are so morally sure about this you dream of an apology?

Can't really conceive being so sure about anything.

Maciano writes:

We have borders because we want to
a) keep and maintain order for ourselves
b) safeguard a place on the planet for our progeny
c) be left alone by people who somehow couldn't manage a & b.

You sometimes make some good pleas for open borders, I agree it's a shame people elsewhere on the planet suffer because of other people's bad decisions. However, if we open borders instead of doing good we will import the chaos, i.e. illiteracy, poverty, illiberalism & unenlightened ways of thinking in our own midst. That's evil.

We should help the guy in your example by handing out a hand to help him in his country to spread our more liberal & enlightened ways of thinking to people who are ruining his country. I really believe you're intellectually sincere, and I've read your papers, so I can't fathom why you can't see the errors in your thinking.

Immigration is not bad in itself, it can be a great asset for a country, if you let in people who the host country needs or welcomes. Immigration is also not good in itself, it can be a great cost to a country, especially if it causes all sorts of societal changes the host country doesn't want. There's a golden mean for anything.


There's a just way to help people escape war without opening our borders, that's by supporting the warring country's regional neighbours to help support the refugee stream.

Massimo writes:

The story depicts an idealized immigrant: humble, victim of tragedies for which he has no culpability, honest, willing to do low status hard work indefinitely, and grateful for the opportunity.

- Caplan wants unselective immigration: so not just the idealized immigrant depicted, but also the foreigners committing heinous crimes.

- Many children in the US are similarly idealized victims of horrific circumstances for which they have no individual culpability. Caplan advocates extreme borders at the house level, and denies these children the opportunity to eat out his garbage and live in a crawl space. If Caplan were hypothetically forced to accept foreign children and let them live in his crawl space and eat out his garbage, would he offer a similar apology?

Caplan just repeats his pro-immigration points and tunes out the counter points.

Jeff writes:

As a counterpoint, could I invoke Colonel Jessup's "We live in a world that has walls" speech at the end of A Few Good Men?

I would rather you open borders, brotherhood-of-man idealists just said "thank you" and went on your way!

Barry "The Economy" Soetoro writes:

Proponents of open borders assume people are commodities, and that a lutheran norwegian from Minnesota will behave the same as the immigrant from war torn Somalia.

Andrew_FL writes:

Would you settle for an enormous golden statue of yourself at the planning bureau?

Sam Haysom writes:

One imagines this is as likely as Caplan ever looking the family of a child killed by an illegal immigrant drunk driver in the eye and saying "I'm sorry I knowingly advocated for the importation of a culture of people with far more casual ideas about drunk driving than our own. I did so in full knowledge of the fact that (by virtue of an over generous compensation package in an industry insulated from the free market competion I urge on others) my children would be insulated from these dangers."

"It's ok Bryan we know how hard high school must have been for you and how eager you must be to take the envy you have for jocks and their pretty girlfriends out on them and by extension us by undermining our culture and wages. Sure we didn't persoanlly bully you, but those kind of grudges never go away. And if your writing is any indication your attempts at rationalization are convincing basicallly only to you."

"Please don't make excuses for me. I could have tried harder to blend in and been less convinced of my own specialness. But my ego was too large."

John Smith writes:

Keep dreaming, buddy.

You have little or no support even among a highly freedom-leaning demographic such as your readers here.

Very few people will find it appealing at all to sacrifice their well-being for that of others, even if the trade-off ratio was very high.

Zazooba writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

AS writes:

I'm sorry all these other comments are rude and miss the main idea here:

Open borders generates positive surplus for both sides. If the surplus wasn't positive for the natives, then they wouldn't be offering the jobs and housing that attracts the immigrants in the first place. The very fact that immigrants desire to come is direct evidence that it is the will of the free market and hence it would benefit both sides, as free trade always does.

Simon Cranshaw writes:

Regarding some of the comments, Is it necessary to find selfish explanations for Bryan's views? If we take the simple premise that all lives are valued equally, that we care for a Syrian refugee as much as for a natural born citizen, isn't it logical to advocate open borders? The large gains to immigrants overwhelm the debatable costs to locals.
You can argue that is not fair or just. You can argue that it's not the right criteria and that citizenism is right. But surely it's easy to understand the policy as the logical conclusion from a simple premise. There's no need to look for some peculiar psychology to explain it, is there?

ZC writes:

@AS " If the surplus wasn't positive for the natives, then they wouldn't be offering the jobs and housing that attracts the immigrants in the first place. "

If we weren't a huge welfare state, that might be true. Do away with all the entitlements and then we can talk.

vikingvista writes:
We have borders because we want to a) keep and maintain order for ourselves b) safeguard a place on the planet for our progeny c) be left alone by people who somehow couldn't manage a & b.

You confuse private property, which you, your volunteers (your "we"), and the rest of us can use for those purposes; with property violations, which you and your volunteers employ the government to commit against your peacefully unwilling and disagreeing neigbors (who the black market reveals to be throughout this land, and significant in number).

To justify your argument, you must justify your right to impose your will upon those around you. I.e., why does your authority over my property exceed my own?

Ali Bertarian writes:

Hey Bryan, did Zero become part of the 47% who don't pay federal income taxes, who then vote for Democrats who ensure the furtherance of the attainment of the socialist utopia? If not, then when shall we expect an apology from you?

Maciano writes:


Unlike you I recognize borders as a necessity, a sign of civilization & order. It's a gift we inherited from our ancestors to be free, prosperous & autonomous. Within that area there's private property.


the fact that poor people immigrate is s sign of failure of countries to create conditions (such as borders & free markets) for their citizens to prosper.

Christopher Chang writes:

Simon Cranshaw:

If Bryan was making this post in 2005 or 2006, you might be correct. The problem is that he's since been exposed to a gigantic amount of evidence against his understandable starting intuitions, and he's failed to update his position even while plenty of his colleagues have (note that e.g. Tyler Cowen, Arnold Kling, Robin Hanson, etc. were all about as positive on open borders as Caplan nine years ago). It is his repeated doubling down on already-refuted arguments which makes others wonder about his psychology.

The worst part is that there still are obvious opportunities for him to advance his stated cause in a way that does not antagonize others, and he refuses to take them. Sweden is a rich country that's trying, with citizen consent, a much more liberal immigration policy than the US. "Anti-foreign bias" was, until recently, nearly nonexistent there. If his ideas are workable at all, they should work in a place like that. But anti-foreign sentiment is now skyrocketing, and the government is now resorting to criminalization of Internet criticism of its immigration policy. And this can't be blamed on Sweden's socialism; Singapore, a rich country generally characterized as being on the opposite end of the political spectrum, is also now moving away from immigration-based growth after trying for many years to get it to work well. Or if preexisting wealth is the problem, Argentina is an open borders country with relatively high population IQ which is currently underperforming economically; it should be relatively easy to improve (this doesn't even depend on "double world GDP" being true! what was Taiwan or South Korea's "place premium" in 1953?).

Instead, after some of his American opponents peacefully derailed the latest round of citizen-hostile immigration legislation by unseating Eric Cantor, Caplan is now pressing for the *destruction of the entire American system of government*. No US executive action in history has ever had the combination of unpopularity and long-term impact that characterizes the amnesty for >10 million that Caplan insists is the right thing to do. Similar actions in other countries have frequently had catastrophic consequences. In the standard economic argument for open borders, America has a "place premium" due mostly to its institutions; so how can an economist justify destroying the institutions just to implement open borders? He has been asked to retract just that statement, and incredibly, he hasn't done it.

I don't know whether he really is hellbent on harming millions of Americans he doesn't like, or if he just acts that way without really knowing what he's doing. But I don't think it matters any more. I advise anyone who is serious about actually improving global utility via immigration liberalization to publicly distance themselves from Caplan.

Simon Cranshaw writes:

Christopher Chang, thank you for the long reply. I'm afraid I don't understand the relevance of what you say to my point though. Your arguments still seem to come from the citizenist point of view. If the criteria is the welfare of all the people in the world, then you have to show that the gains made by immigrants are less than the costs born by natives. I don't see that you do this. Of course, it's a separate question as to whether global utility is the right criteria or citizenism is the right criteria. I'm not arguing about that. It still seems that if global utility is the criteria it's hard not to come to an open borders position.
I don't know the views of all the people you mention but Tyler Cowen is an interesting exception to what I'm saying. He is also using global welfare as a criteria but doesn't advocate open borders. He has a fear, though it's not one I fully understand, that at extremely high rates of immigration something net bad would happen. (Is there any example of such an occurrence?) Still, he does advocate a large increase in the amount of legal immigration so I think his position is closer to Bryan's than it is opposed to it and very different from most of the opposition to immigration that is being shown here.

Christopher Chang writes:

I am criticizing Caplan specifically here, not open borders advocates in general (except those who continue to cite Caplan). My own position on the subject is fairly close to Tyler's current position.

Bob Schadler writes:

Political economy took into account that economic theory needed to be embedded in a political reality as well. One might cite Herbert Simon's "bounded rationality" vs global rationality or "utility".
Global "utility" might well be increased if 100 million Indians, 200 million Chinese, and 50 million from Australia and another 50 million from South America all chose within a year or two, to migrate to the U.S. There is no imaginable political system that would be agreeable to such a migration.
Utterly different is a very generous, structured immigration policy that looks to admit, say, 20 million a year with some consensus on criteria.
Far too many economists implicitly deny there should be political borders -- and their theorizing is based on this ideal. But no group of people agree with unlimited in-migration. The goal should, therefore, be generous but limited.
FWIW: My parents were immigrants. I attended schools in three continents, where three languages were used. And a fourth spoken at home. Studied international relations and economics at good universities and traveled widely. Not "anti-immigrant" or "anti-foreigner"

Christopher Chang writes:

Also note that, although I think it is clear that the US government's first responsibility is to US citizens (otherwise, why is it the US, as opposed to the world, government?), my argument against Caplan's "executive amnesty for >10 million" position does not actually depend on a citizenist viewpoint: destruction of US institutions for the purpose of implementing open borders has catastrophically bad expectation regardless of whether you use a universalist or citizenist metric.

AS writes:

The claim that open borders would destroy US institutions is unsupported. You are assuming your conclusion, rather than proving it. Absent such evidence, open borders are innocent until proven guilty.

Massimo writes:

@Simon, "If we take the simple premise that all lives are valued equally, that we care for a Syrian refugee as much as for a natural born citizen, isn't it logical to advocate open borders?"

By the same premise it's also a logical corollary to eradicate the institution of private families. If the life and well being of a complete stranger has the same value as a family member, then a family structure that exists to provide it's members with special, exclusive privileges is wrong.

Closed border ethnic nations are just extended families. They care more about their members than strangers. It's reasonable to claim that families/nations shouldn't hurt or attack other families/nations, but to claim that they should be perfectly selfless and effectively dissolve so that they don't treat their own members better than strangers is ridiculous.

Maciano writes:


There used to be open borders in the US. They ended the policy.

People recognized open borders were a mistake. It caused a too big confrontation to the US culture of the time, there was a heated debate in media & politics and open borders became a thing of the past. You can argue the immigration restrictionism as it was implemented was too strict, but restrictionism in itself was an improvement over open borders. You need to select who you let into your country.

Lots of people want to make this open border discussion unnecessarily complicated. There IS proof open borders didn't work. Stop saying there's no proof.

Christopher Chang writes:

AS, I have never claimed that open borders implemented *with citizen consent* would destroy anything. Indeed, I've repeatedly advised open borders advocates to redirect their attention to Sweden for now, since they are trying to do exactly that, it isn't working as rosily as folks like Caplan have predicted, but I would think the situation is salvageable if the right keyhole solutions are adopted.

However, that is no longer what Caplan stands for. Read the end of his Vox interview: he thinks that a gigantic executive action is the best thing to do. *That* is the problem; there is no precedent for such unpopular and large-scale unilateral executive action in America, and the precedents in other countries have been awful enough to fully justify the "destruction of American institutions" claim. I asked him over a month ago to retract just that statement, and he hasn't done so.

Caplan can no longer be defended. Again, note that my criticism here is specific to Caplan, it is not intended to apply to open borders advocacy in general.

dullgeek writes:


You seem to suggest that borders exist as a collective decision to guard "our" property and exercise "our" will over whom "we" wish to interact with. And insofar as there is complete agreement amongst all the members of "us" I have no problem with that.

However, it isn't that way. I would prefer to buy and sell and trade services with people who don't have citizenship here. When you forcibly prevent me from doing that aren't you violating my rights over whom I associate with and whom I trade with? It seems to me that my trading with Zero does not force you to also trade with Zero if you don't wish to. Consequently my dealing with Zero do not seem to me to infringe on your rights. But when you continue to support a border that prevents me from trading with Zero, that seems to me to infringe on my rights to manage my relationship with Zero.

Is there a justification which makes this ok? Bryan Caplan doesn't think there is and has spent a lot of time addressing the common justifications. Do you have a different one, and if so, do you care to share it as clearly?

Maciano writes:


1) You can trade/sell services with anyone you want even if borders were closed for migration. Even if you'd want to go the barber you could just get them here for your service on a tourist visa. If you want to marry someone, you can help them get a passport or visa. How do I know? I live in Europe and everyone with a foreign partner does this.

2) All the things you want to do are possible without open borders.

3) What Bryan Caplan thinks does not matter, he'd be first to admit. What matters is: is Bryan Caplan right? No, he's not. He thinks borders are a moral crime. I think borders prevent moral wrongs, because unlimited free migration causes all sorts of social ills I don't need or want around me.

Also, open borders can't be undone when opened nowadays. You will have forever altered a country unrecognizable for the benefit of the few at the expense of future generations. That's too high a cost -- nobody should even dare such a wager.

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