Bryan Caplan  

Krugman's Cursory Case Against Open Borders

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Paul Krugman exemplifies the standard progressive position on immigration.  He strongly supports amnesty for existing illegal immigrants, but strongly opposes open borders.  His case for amnesty is not novel:
[T]oday's immigrants are the same, in aspiration and behavior, as my grandparents were -- people seeking a better life, and by and large finding it.

That's why I enthusiastically support President Obama's new immigration initiative. It's a simple matter of human decency.
Krugman's case against open borders, in contrast, is uniquely his own.  How so?  Most thinkers who explicitly reject open borders are convinced it would be an absolute disaster.  Krugman, in contrast, opposes open borders for the mildest of reasons.  Read his sentences carefully:
The New Deal made America a vastly better place, yet it probably wouldn't have been possible without the immigration restrictions that went into effect after World War I. For one thing, absent those restrictions, there would have been many claims, justified or not, about people flocking to America to take advantage of welfare programs.
Krugman hardly sounds convinced that immigrants would have flocked to the U.S. to take advantage of the New Deal.  "Justified or not" is awfully agnostic.  While Krugman says the New Deal probably wouldn't have been possible without immigration restrictions, he doesn't say that immigration restrictions were required to have some version of the welfare state.  Nor does he sound convinced that fear of "flocking" would have a high probability of substantially curtailing the welfare state in some form or other.  "Many claims"?  Name any major social program that fails to inspire "many claims" about its dangers before, during, and after its adoption.

Krugman continues:
Furthermore, open immigration meant that many of America's worst-paid workers weren't citizens and couldn't vote. Once immigration restrictions were in place, and immigrants already here gained citizenship, this disenfranchised class at the bottom shrank rapidly, helping to create the political conditions for a stronger social safety net. And, yes, low-skill immigration probably has some depressing effect on wages, although the available evidence suggests that the effect is quite small.
Notice: Krugman doesn't say that exclusion of immigrants was an essential political condition for the welfare state to arise.  He only says that it helped create political conditions for a stronger welfare state. 

So let's sum up Krugman's case against open borders:

1. It's unclear whether immigrants would have flocked to the U.S. to take advantage of the welfare state.

2. But many would hastily assume such an effect, somewhat reducing domestic support for the welfare state. 

3. Also, excluding non-voting poor immigrants somewhat altered voter demographics in the welfare state's favor.

Personally, I think that mass immigration does far more good for the truly poor than the welfare state ever has.  This isn't just a weird libertarian view; Brad DeLong agrees with a few caveats:
Increased immigration is superior to strengthening the welfare state. I just don't think it will or can happen, so I will advocate the next best thing. From a cosmopolitan world perspective, almost all of the costs of maldistribution come from income gaps between nations and very little come from within-nation inequality. Development is far more important from a world welfare perspective than social insurance within rich countries. And immigration is a powerful tool for world development.
But maybe Brad and I are wrong.  Suppose that if we faced an either-or choice between the welfare state and open borders, we should choose the welfare state.  Krugman still fails to provide any decent argument against open borders.  How so?  Because marginalism.  Krugman claims nothing stronger than, "Open borders would have somewhat reduced the strength of the safety net."  Why then is he so convinced that this marginal policy change outweighs the massive harm inflicted by making almost all immigration illegal?

This is no hyperbole.  Joel Newman shows that the cost of immigration restrictions were already catastrophic by the end of Roosevelt's second term, when the U.S. turned away hundreds of thousands of people desperately struggling to escape the clutches of the Nazis.  And far more would have applied if they had any hope of getting in - as millions did before World War I.

About a month ago, Krugman ridiculed lingering right-wing fear of democratic expropriation:
For the political right has always been uncomfortable with democracy. No matter how well conservatives do in elections, no matter how thoroughly free-market ideology dominates discourse, there is always an undercurrent of fear that the great unwashed will vote in left-wingers who will tax the rich, hand out largess to the poor, and destroy the economy.
Krugman's right.  This is a silly fear.  Why?  Many reasons, but the most obvious is that voters are far from selfish.  Most poor voters would consider full-blown expropriation of the rich to be deeply unfair, all incentive effects aside.

What the history of immigration restrictions shows, however, is that decent folk should nevertheless be deeply uncomfortable with democracy.  Why?  Because most voters are nationalists, and nationalist voters consistently do to foreigners what low-income voters almost never do to the rich: Strip them en masse of their basic rights to work, reside, and travel.  Why?  For the flimsiest of reasons.  Flimsy reasons like: Trapping millions of foreigners in dire poverty and bloody repression probably makes our safety net somewhat stronger.

To quote GMU econ prodigy Nathaniel Bechhofer: Paul, you're better than this.




COMMENTS (15 to date)
Lawrence D'Anna writes:

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Bedarz Iliaci writes:

basic rights to work, reside, and travel.
Defined in which state of law?
Where are these rights defined, who adjudicates these rights, which court of law settles disputes in these rights?
Which military or armed might secures these rights?
Which duties correspond to these rights?

MikeP writes:
That’s why I enthusiastically support President Obama’s new immigration initiative. It’s a simple matter of human decency.

That’s not to say that I, or most progressives, support open borders.

It is abundantly clear that progressives don't have two principles to rub together. A principled position on illegal immigrants already in the country is simply to handle them as the boundary condition of immigration reform in general. So for open borders, "amnesty" simply means offering unlimited visas to illegal immigrants. Done and done.

So let's just count this inability to have principles as an endearing foible of progressives.

But if we take Krugman at his word that Obama's action is a simple matter of human decency, then what on earth makes the Democrats so adamant about comprehensive immigration reform? Making reform comprehensive is what makes it difficult. And fighting for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants rather than a path to legality is what makes it anathema to Republicans. If progressives truly believed in human decency, they would do what they can to gain legality and drop the disingenuous effort to pad their voter rolls.

Julian Berengaut writes:

There is another problem with Krugman's position that involves a point raised long ago by Simon Kuznets. He observed that, prior to the Great Depression, economic downturns in the US resulted in outward migrations of unemployed recent immigrants back to their mainly rural places of origin. These migrations were reversed once economic conditions in the US improved. This didn't happen in the Great Depression because of the draconian immigration restrictions imposed in the early 1920s. So it was the immigration restrictions that made the Great Depression more severe and not the other way around as imagined by Krugman.

Handle writes:

It's not like the welfare magnet effect isn't a well studied real phenomenon, and one that actually generated enough popular dissatisfaction that it led to reform of welfare in the direction disfavored by progressives. They're still bitter about it, but they're not stupid, and haven't forgot the lesson.

However, while the debate was happening, they fervently denied that the phenomenon even existed. Who would move away from home, family, and friends, just to collect some more welfare?

But they are stuck in a bind now, because the data showed it was happening, and with regards to an international immigrant who is facing an ever greater transition cost, the argument falls apart completely. So Krugman is in a bit of a pickle trying to maintain consistency with what he and other friends claimed in the old debate, without looking like a fool in this one.

And guess what. Pointing out that inconsistency doesn't weaken Krugman's argument against open-borders, it strengthens it, because it only reveals the lingering of the lies made in the former debate, when what Krugman is saying would happen now actually happened.

So, this post is a bit of an own-goal, for people who remember.

Anyway, it's interesting to read a Libertarian writing something equivalent to, "Don't worry about Democracy because the voters will vote Socialist; worry about Democracy because the voters will vote Nationalist." That statement would make a lot of Europeans chuckle.

But that's just the problem. The whole point is to try to flood the country with people who will vote more like those Europeans. If the current population won't vote for your party or favored policies, then you can do an end-run around them by simply importing a new, more complaisant (and certainly less Libertarian) electorate.

Everyone but the open-borders libertarians understands very well how suicidally bad this is going to be for moving any other policy in a more libertarian directions.

The funny thing is, all the Socialists I read favor, if not open-borders exactly, then as quick a path to citizenship for as many immigrants as possible, legal or otherwise, though amnesty or otherwise. Precisely because they expect them to vote Socialist. And, besides on immigration matters, I don't see much evidence that they will stop voting Nationalist. That's not going to be good for libertarianism.

If you'd like an example, how about 'California'. How is libertarianism doing there? Not so well. That's too bad, but it certainly wasn't unpredictable or unpredicted.

And when, in a few decades, the few libertarians who remain admit they made a big mistake, then it doesn't matter, because it's an irreversible one.

John B writes:
...fear that the great unwashed will vote in left-wingers who will tax the rich, hand out largess to the poor, and destroy the economy.

I think you can argue that history shows that this does indeed happen, at least for the first two items. Without a control universe, we can't look to history to tell us what would have happened to economies if other policies had been followed. But tax and spend -- we know that is what happens when you let the masses* vote.

Consider the UK after WW I: a popular government introduced huge estate taxes, progressive income tax rates and a big welfare state.

In the the US for a while the estate tax went up to a 55% marginal rate and in the not too distant past there very high marginal income tax rates. There are now huge and hugely expensive social programs in place (Social Security, Education, AFDC, etc.). Even the current tax bite is punishingly large from the viewpoint of 1900.

*I recommend "The Revolt of the Masses" by Ortega y Gasset; the public/people/masses that we refer to here are the creation of a particular kind of industrial economy. As we move into a post-industrial world, things are going to change.

Nathan W writes:

I think his point is very legitimate, if not packaged to your liking, but I think your disagreement is really in the substance of his argument.

Right wingers already hate being forced to help their neighbours enough and the pittance allocated to foreign aid. They would hardly tolerate a welfare state in the face of open borders unless other countries were able to offer sufficiently decent social insurance to prevent half of Africa moving lining up for American welfare checks (most of whom couldn't afford to get to America even if they saved hard for their entire lives, but never mind that).

Open borders types should first promote rapid economic development and building of state capacity overseas before people can move across borders as freely as money.

I agree that the overall effect for the poor would be to simply let people move to where the money is, but I think the costs of removing the welfare state would be higher than the cost of the welfare state itself, although these costs would be harder to quantify.

MikeP writes:

Nathan W,

Open borders. Closed welfare.

Build a fence around welfare so only immigrants on citizenship-track visas who have been in the country 20 years can get it. And put citizen children on the same welfare schedule as their parents.

The next question is whether these immigrants who have no shot at getting welfare should be forced to pay taxes to support it. I look forward to that debate!

Nathan W writes:

Under a welfare state with public education, access to health care, etc., it is much easier for working class poor to give their child a chance to earn high income than in 1900. This is possible, in part, because they can afford to take risks because the welfare state has their back in case everything go wrong (they lose a job and go on the dole for a period, say).

John, if it costs you 55% of your income to make it possible for everyone to achieve your situation, then I say make it 65% if need be. But really, I think the problem in taxation is the 10% or so of your income dedicated to military, police, generally building walls, etc. You would personally get to keep thousands of dollars annually if only your government could step back from the police state and imperial enterprise.

MikeP, your counterargument reads something like "your right and I'm right, because I have a witty turn of phrase. See the witty turn of phrase (I'm right)?" Here, when people refer to "principled" they refer to ethics, which generally requires considering the well-being of others when you evaluate what is right. The use of the word "principle" is not used to say "Everything about this is bestest" it's to say "I think this is ethically superior". You could argue about net welfare, about rights of current citizens to exclude other, or all manner of things, but mostly I'm just writing to say that it bothers me to read something that is so pointing towards a critique of value, and then which turns up so empty. What is YOUR "principled" approach to the matter?

Cyril Morong writes:

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a book in 1979 called The Nature of Mass Poverty (not one of his better known works). He devoted the entire last chapter to migration. One passage reads: “Migration, we have seen, is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those who most want help. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps to break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people so to resist so obvious a good?”

Jeff R. writes:
Krugman's right. This is a silly fear. Why? Many reasons, but the most obvious is that voters are far from selfish.

I think it's worth noting that the evidence you cite is from Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. Needless to say, an open borders regime is going to significantly alter economic and political power in America, so your certainty in this regard strikes me as completely unwarranted, given the history of, say, Central and South America during the 20th century. Or sub-Saharan Africa. Or Asia. I certainly can't think of any radical leftist movements in any of those places who ever harmed their nations' national economies, can you? It's been smooth sailing since they got rid of all those nasty European colonialists!

MikeP writes:

Here, when people refer to "principled" they refer to ethics, which generally requires considering the well-being of others when you evaluate what is right.

What I mean by "principled" is "consistent rather than inconsistent". I see no principle that can rectify the two positions of legalization for those who managed to illegally make it into the country and managed to produce citizen children here and illegalization for those who didn't.

What is YOUR "principled" approach to the matter?

My principled approach to the matter is not to abrogate individuals' unalienable rights based on conditions of their birth. The rights to work, reside, and travel should not be contingent on race, sex, religion, or birthplace. Hence open borders.

In contrast, citizenship and welfare are pragmatic institutions much less beholden or amenable to principle. They can be granted by government based on pragmatic needs, one of which is not to have welfare be a draw for immigrants. Hence closed welfare.

Jeff writes:

Conservatives fear that immigrants will vote to expand the welfare state. Krugman fears that a more diverse population is less likely to support a larger welfare state. The question is, which effect is larger?

I think Krugman has the better argument here. The conservative argument only applies to legal immigrants and the native-born children of illegal immigrants once they've reached voting age.

What's more, to the extent that Krugman is correct, conservatives who want to shrink the welfare state should support illegal, not legal immigration. We don't see much of that, which lends credence to the idea that their opposition to pretty much all kinds of immigration is based on something else.

GU writes:

The standard progressive position on immigration has nothing to do with policy, and is only tangentially concerned with actually helping others. It's all about showing what a kind and loving heart is possessed by the progressive himself.

In other words, modern progressivism is mostly about signaling that you are a "good person" who has compassion for the plight of the disadvantaged. The actual consequences of policies are an afterthought. Mainstream conservatives function similarly, but they aim to signal different things.

Harvey Cody writes:

Bryan,
Krugman is, in essence, saying immigration policy should be set to achieve purposes higher than improving the plight of the few who would otherwise gain access to the USA with a more exclusive immigration policy (a side effect he, no doubt, regrets). Krugman's higher purpose is to preserve and expand the welfare state. You have ridiculed his values (something with which I agree), but have not really addressed his basic proposition, i.e., restricting people from entering is bad, but not restricting them might be worse.

If it were true (1) a more prosperous USA would flow (others use the word "trickle") down benefits much more rapidly to the bottom billion in a total flow which greatly outweighed the benefits to the few who would otherwise immigrate to the USA, (2) immigration would inevitably and rapidly lead to citizenship/voting, and (3) the voting of new immigrants would change voting results in a way which lessens USA prosperity (enough so that it would overwhelm the economic benefits of more immigration), then restricting immigration would be (unarguably by a non-nationalist?) good.

So the question becomes: What are the odds of the situation described in the preceding paragraph occurring? Unless you can make the case that the odds of that are so low that the improvement in the lives of the bottom billion is worth the risking, you haven't made much of an argument at all.

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