Bryan Caplan  

Plug-and-Play People

This Sick Capitalism ®... Truly Notable and Quotable...
One common complaint about proponents of open borders is that we picture human beings as interchangeable parts.  If an American can do X, so can a Haitian.  Why can't the open borders crowd see the obvious truth that people are not "plug-and-play" - that you can't jumble different kinds of people and expect them to function well together?

My instinctive reaction is to appeal to Econ 1 and basic facts. 

The Econ 1: If people of different nationalities worked poorly together, employers would account for this fact in their hiring decisions.  An employer with a 100% native-born American workforce would look at immigrant applicants and silently note, "Oil and water don't mix."  Or perhaps he'd think, "Americans and high-caste Indians work well together, but Americans and Indian untouchables don't."  Then he'd hire on the basis of these ugly truths, while paying lip service to equal opportunity and the brotherhood of man.  As a result, immigrants - or at least the "wrong kind of immigrants" - would discover that migrating for better jobs is a waste of time.  Jobs are better in the First World, but you have to be First-World-compatible to land one. 

The basic facts: This manifestly is not how labor markets work.  As the opponents of immigration loudly complain, First World employers hire immigrants all the time.  They eagerly hire legal immigrants - and as long as the law is laxly enforced, they furtively hire illegal immigrants.  Even when the law criminalizes non-discrimination, plenty of First World employers look over their shoulders, shrug, mutter "Money's money" and break the law.  Doesn't this show that workers ultimately are plug-and-play?

Yet on reflection, my instinctive reaction misses much of the magic of the market.  If you've ever been a boss, you know that getting human beings of the same culture to effectively cooperate together is like pulling teeth.  Indeed, it's like pulling shark teeth that never stop growing back.  The more different the members of your team are, the greater the miscommunication and strife. 

How then do firms manage to function?  The social intelligence of the leadership.  Good managers know in their bones that diverse human beings aren't built for close cooperation.  Rather than throw their hands up in despair, however, good managers rise to the challenge.  True to their job description, managers manage their workers, forging them into effective teams despite their disparate abilities, personalities, and backgrounds.  It's an uphill battle, and you have to keep running just to stay in place.  But good managers kindle the fire of teamwork, then keep the fire burning day in, day out.

The critics of immigration are right to insist that people aren't plug-and-play.  Cultural diversity definitely makes teamwork harder.  Unlike the critics of immigration, however, businesses around the world treat this fact not as a plague, but a profit opportunity.  Sure, some stodgy entrepreneurs mutter defeatist cliches about oil and water and keep hiring within their tribes.  But more visionary entrepreneurs rise to the challenge of diversity every day.  That's why even the most unskilled and culturally alien workers rightly believe that the streets of the First World are paved with gold.  Given half a chance, socially adept businesspeople rush to do the paving.

But isn't the workplace a relatively favorable environment for diversity?  No; the opposite is true.  Stores gladly open their doors to the general public because almost any human being with money to spend is a lovely customer.  As long as the customers don't bite each other, the more the merrier.  Landlords are a little more selective, but not much: If your credit's good and you keep the noise down to a dull roar, they'll rent to you. 

Employers, in contrast, hire with trepidation.  They know that co-workers need to cooperate like the fingers of a hand.  One bad worker makes a whole firm look bad.  One bad worker can ruin a whole day's work.  One bad worker can make ten good workers quit in frustration.  Outside of the army, no voluntary endeavor in modern adult life is more regimented than the workplace.  Yet by the power of social intelligence, business managers make diversity run smoothly, laughing all the way to the bank.

Where does politics fit in?  It's a lingering concern, but vastly overrated.  Most immigrants are even more politically apathetic than natives.  They vote at sharply lower rates.  And when they arrive in a vast new land, most of their old grievances become irrelevant overnight: Once they arrive in the U.S., Serbs and Croats, Hutus and Tutsis, even Israelis and Palestinians let bygones be bygones.  Political plug-and-play is unnecessary because few immigrants want to play politics in the first place.

COMMENTS (28 to date)
Phil writes:

Bryan: (1) Is there anyone whose immigration you would oppose, such as intolerant people? (2) Are you familiar with Mark Steyn's book America Alone?

Phil writes:

I see that the answer to (2) is yes and that you have a bet with Steyn. Still wondering what your view is with respect to intolerant people who have no interest in reason, debate, free speech, etc.

M writes:

That's a rather banal point to make Bryan. When critics invoke "plug and play" arguments they are generally talking about most everything outside the workforce. You don't seem capable of considering the demonstrable harms of unfettered immigration and weighing these against the legitimate economic benefits you point out. It's hard to deny the initial economic benefits of the kind of immigration you favor, but that isn't what's really at stake here.

Your view is an incantation of the naive libertarian model of society that fails to the account for the irrationalities and realities of the human mind and the differences between minds. And, unfortunately for fascists, countries are not run like a work force.

Nevertheless Singapore leans in that direction with good results. But just like a workplace it must exclude bad apples to function! You can't fire people when they are just a untrustworthy person in your neighborhood or the bullies at school. For many people there is no exit from the negative externalities of unfettered immigration.

stevie writes:

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

Alex Godofsky writes:

I have never seen this critique of open borders.

Shane L writes:

"And when they arrive in a vast new land, most of their old grievances become irrelevant overnight..."

I was surprised by this. Irish migrants in the US actually invaded Canada from the US in the 1860s as an attempt to put political pressure on Britain regarding their Irish policy.

Irish-Americans who'd never set foot in Europe helped to fund the 20th century IRA terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland and Britain.

There has been a lot of talk recently about Muslim attacks on Jewish communities in countries like France today and I gather (though I am not certain) that there are tensions between Indian-British and Pakistani-British in parts of the UK.

Also, many countries receiving immigrants are not "vast". Should smaller countries expect different experiences?

Pajser writes:

I think very few believe that people from different nations cannot work together. They are afraid that they cannot live together.

It seems that Germans and Jews worked together quite well. Tutsi - Huti. Serbs - Bosnians. It appears that many, maybe all great genocides were the result of the failed attempt of few different cultures to live together. And that we actually do not really know why things "gone wrong". Maybe it is not a killer argument against open borders - but I don't see how it can be ignored.

robert writes:

A lawyer, an engineer and an economist are stranded on an island with a crate of canned food and no can opener. The lawyer decides to look around for a large rock to open the cans, the engineer decides to see if he can create a can opener with items found on the island, and the economist decides to assume that they have a can opener.

If I understand correctly, people are not plug-and-play because they have different cultures which are a difficulty for businesses that overcome those difficulties. However, those differences do not affect the politics since they are not interested in politics. In this case, there has been no change in Californian governance due to the large immigrant influx. There was no effect on 2012 election due to changes in demographics.

I have never received an answer about why losing voting rights from common to preferred stock would make the preferred stock less valuable and require a larger dividend or stock splits that would dilute the owners voting power would not have a similar corollary in politics, especially since politics is much more win vs loss, i.e. only one party can win in any particular election. I can understand that this is not as much of an issue for groups of people on the winning side, but one can understand why it may be an issue for the people on the losing side.

Also, I wonder about your assumption about people coming here wanting to work. Isn’t it more accurate to say that people come here to have a better life? Wouldn’t their utility be at the highest point on the curve where the amount of benefit compared to the amount of sacrifice is at the optimal?
For example, my wife’s friend’s parents have gotten green cards from Russia in order to get on Medicaid even though her husband manages an energy trading desk for an investment bank.

Another concern would be that is the imbalance between the reactions of power structures on the nativist versus anti-nativist opinions. It seems that there is much more concern about nativist opinions than anti-nativist opinions. Part of that probably could be attributed to the powerful harboring bias against the lower classes of society, which probably goes back to why it doesn’t bother them that the voting rights of the people they have bias against are being diluted. An example of this may the difference in reaction between the Catholic Church and the Rotherham scandal.

I believe that history has proved through, e.g. the Roman Empire and the closing of Japan and China, that more open societies do better economically, and it is amazing how open this country already is. Also, it is amazing how open this country is to helping vs harming or exploiting other countries.

I would hope that as you continue evangelize open borders that you also incorporate the difficulties, especially corruption and integration, as well as the fact that no matter how many people come to the United States there will always be more people who do not live in the United States.

Floccina writes:

My suggestion for a next immigration post by Bryan:
In the past people sometimes made people responsible for the sins of their parents/ancestors. It is interesting that anti-immigration people want to judge foreigners for the likely sins of their children/decedents.

Oblomov writes:

@Phil: "(1) Is there anyone whose immigration you would oppose, such as intolerant people?"

I think Bryan have already made pretty clear that his perspective on open borders is pretty radical. See his article co-authored with Vipul Naik: A Radical Case for Open Borders

I made some friends of mine read this article, or at least explained to them its arguments the best I could. With only one exception, everybody thought the idea were nuts and "radical" (as intended by the authors?).

Caplan believes -- correctly IMHO -- that almost all cognitive and psychological traits are heritable. Maybe "moral absolutism" and a preference for radical propositions in general is pretty heritable, too? Caplan and many libertarians take ideas pretty seriously and love to take arguments to their ultimate consequences. They are in the extreme of the bell curve with regard to this trait, and maybe they were, at least partially, "born this way".

If so, the advance of the Open Borders will need the help of more neurotypical advocates, as well as Caplan's whose arguments appeal to only a few highly unsual minds.

My two cents.

mico writes:

Given that it was written by you rather than $big_newspaper_op_ed_author, this is a very disappointing article.

Passages like,

"True to their job description, managers manage their workers, forging them into effective teams despite their disparate abilities, personalities, and backgrounds. It's an uphill battle, and you have to keep running just to stay in place. But good managers kindle the fire of teamwork, then keep the fire burning day in, day out."


"Sure, some stodgy entrepreneurs mutter defeatist cliches about oil and water and keep hiring within their tribes. But more visionary entrepreneurs rise to the challenge of diversity every day.",

are magical thinking, not economic thinking. Yes the existence of large coordination costs does not make coordination impossible but it does tend to reduce the level of coordination that is either possible in theory or achieved in practice.

It also begs the question how much of the additional coordination cost imposed by immigration is externalised and not borne by employers or immigrants at all. Please remember to include both the existing welfare state and future voting trends in your analysis.

MG writes:

This line of defense can not apply to Open Borders, businesses hardly ever hire all comers, Americans or non-Americans, here or abroad, on an Open Doors basis. They till exercise some form of selectivity. It is, though, an attack on Closed Borders or Xenophobia -- but these may be in practical terms, strawmen.

_NL writes:

This seems like a charitable and watered down way to re-assert essentially the same "cultural incompatibility" style of arguing against cross-border movement of people. But rather than focusing on the dilution of native culture or the barbarism of the migrant culture, it focuses on the less confrontational idea that the migrants might be unable to realize the benefits of moving.

Of course, this argument would have been stronger in the past, when travel was slower and more cumbersome, electronic communication was more limited or even nonexistent, and American culture less pervasive. But given that people across the world have greater access to American culture, the English language, and to English-speakers traveling to their country, the culture argument should be generally less salient than ever.

Conversely, one could have easily seen the culture argument presented to stop something like the Great Migration, which in fact it was (e.g. Davis-Bacon debate records).

I like this style of argument, not because it's morally astute or particularly persuasive, but because it gets much closer to the real (shameful) reason heavy immigration is so emotional for opponents: different sorts of people can come in without checks. This is a more polite form, but the basic argument is that different sorts of people shouldn't come here in large numbers - whether for their sake or for the arguer's sake.

Hazel Meade writes:

I have concerns with open borders when to comes to fundamentalist Muslims, given recent history. I actually think many Europeans critics have a point in this regard. I just don't think it applies to US immigration, since "hispanics" are an offshoot of western culture - they aren't that culturally distant from us as it is, and nobody cares if you're a Catholic or a Protestant anymore.

But let's imagine we were in the situation of Europe, where there's a lot of immigration from a very different culture, with a very different religion, which also has an ancient history of emnity with your own. And lets imagine that that culture is also home to a very violent fanatical movement that explicitly advocates killing people from your culture and forcibly converting them to their religion.

Is it not then unwise to allow unlimited immigration from that culture?

AS writes:

The only rational argument I see against open borders is the fear that immigrants will vote for socialism. There is certainly anecdotal evidence of this happening, but what does the hard data say? The evidence in this article shows immigrants (at least Hispanic ones) tend to vote Democrat. Democrats tend to expand socialism, hence immigrants could expand socialism.

Gene writes:

AS - immigrants that do vote tend to only slightly lean towards Democrats, and I don't see any reason to think it's has anything to do with socialism. At least in my case, it has everything to do with Republican's hostility towards foreigners. Others things being equal, The party thats less likely to deport you or your family members will probably win.

Tom writes:

@phil- why would intolerant people move to a tolerent land?

AS writes:

Gene - That doesn't look like a slight lean to me. Among foreign borns 45/19% identify with/lean Democrat, vs. only 8/8% Republican. The reason immigrants vote Democrat is irrelevant. What matters is that they do vote Democrat, and the Democratic coalition includes socialists. Unfortunately the two-party system means that each party is a coalition of a multitude of special interests, so when you vote for one, you vote for the entire coalition of interests, even if you disagree with some of them. I disagree with both parties, but unfortunately there is no option when I vote to pick and choose which policies of each party I wish to support. Ideally a libertarian would have the freedom to express support for the social freedom that Democrats offer along with the economic freedom that Republicans offer, but unfortunately that is simply not an option in our two-party system.

Gene writes:

You're saying that a reasonable case for hostility towards foreigners (as displayed by republicans) is that they tend to vote for the party that favors socialism. But if they dropped the hostility, foreigners wouldn't be favoring that party. So the reason they prefer Democrats matters quite a bit.
Consider that maybe they're not favoring the more socialist party, but that they're favoring the more immigrant friendly party. Republicans should strive to be that party, instead of doubling down on their hostility.
All this is relative of course, since neither party is really friendly towards foreigners, and they're both quite socialist (the right wing variety is arguably even worse).
Lastly, George W. Bush got over 40% of Hispanic vote for his second term because he tried passing immigration reform. So by no means does the foreign vote have to go to Democrats. Republicans are simply giving it away.

Michael Moran writes:

I am with AS.

The increase in share of population of hispanics is one of the chief causes of the movement of the Democrat party to the left and against free markets.

Second, the statement that immigrants vote Democrat because of Republican's hostility toward them (which really means hostility toward making illegals legal) is contrary to one of Gene's key point, namely that few immigrants play politics. BS.

US is one of few con tries that believes somewhat in free markets. With open borders that would be gone.

Many of Gene's arguments are contrary to fact on the ground.

Prakash writes:

@Tom, Because the tolerant lands are richer.

mico writes:

Bryan did a lot of work showing that people are not strongly influenced in voting by self-interest. Instead, they vote for ideology.

Is it not most likely that most Latin Americans in the US lean Democrat because the Democrats are closer to the Latin American parties ideologically than the Republicans?

Shane L writes:

Aside from voting one way or another, a large immigrant group might simply rebel and overthrow the state by force. Imagine the Russian government sending millions of Russians across the border into an imaginary libertarian Estonia (population 1.3 million), armed to the teeth because of their lax gun laws, quietly surrounding every government building or military base and announcing that Estonia was merging with Russia. If Estonia didn't bother protecting its borders to migration it might as well be not protecting them from military invasion either.

Maybe this seems irrelevant in the big US, but small countries could be swamped pretty quickly, no?

Phil writes:

@Tom: Having read Steyn's America Alone, the intolerant people I have in mind are radical Islamists determined to impose Sharia law.

Gene writes:

Michael Moran - your first point is supported by what exactly? Calling assertions facts doesn't make them such.

Also, restrictions on foreign people are probably the largest deviation from free markets there is.

Mico - Sure in most cases people vote for what they think is best for everybody rather then narrow self interest, but do you really think immigrants (or any group for that matter) are likely to believe their very presence is bad for the country? Call is self interest or ideology, but most people aren't gonna be hostile towards themselves.

Also as Bryan Caplan has pointed out, people favor parties that give them respect. And republicans are doing a hell of a job with that in regards to foreigners (sarcasm of course).

ColoComment writes:

"But if they dropped the hostility, foreigners wouldn't be favoring that party."

Assumes facts not in evidence. Asserting a conclusion not proven.

Gene writes:

ColoComment - the commonly accepted claim that they vote democrat because of the handouts is also nothing more than a weak assertion. All I'm trying to do is provide a much more plausible explanation for the trend. And I speak from personal experience, being an immigrant myself.
I keep having to repeat that immigrants mostly don't participate in politics at all, and of those that do, the preference for Democrats is not that large, and is much better explained by republicans hostility than democrats socialism.

Mico writes:

Gene - Even if Republicans and Democrats respected foreigners equally (surely they're not actually foreigners if they are eligible to vote? but whatever), we'd still expect immigrants from hard left countries to vote for the left party rather than the right party.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top