Bryan Caplan  

What I Didn't Get to Say to Mark Krikorian

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If you haven't heard of John Tanton, you should: He's the intellectual entrepreneur behind most of America's major anti-immigration organizations.  This morning I spoke before one of Tanton's brain children, US Inc., for their annual Social Contract Writers Workshop.  As expected, the audience was polite, with little of the vitriol that so sullies cyberspace.  I once again shared a panel with Mike Gonzalez from Heritage and Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.  Q&A was brief, but I had time to chat with the audience after the session.  Still, I left with a great deal unsaid, which I'll now share - starting with what I didn't get to tell Mark Krikorian.

1. Mark has often joked that he wants me to become the spokesman for comprehensive immigration reform.  But his joke is serious: I was invited on his recommendation.  In his view, I'm so extreme and forthright that I discredit moderate proponents of freer immigration by association. 

Mark may be right, but I doubt it.  Violent extremism quickly makes moderates look bad, but I'm staunchly peaceful for moral and tactical reasons.  No one's physically frightened of little me, nor should they be.  What am I accomplishing?  My first priority is to stand up for what I think is true, quixotic though it be.  Especially in the long-run, though, I seem to be nudging the Overton Window in a pro-immigration direction.  Framing the immigration debate as Caplan versus Krikorian is better for immigration than framing it as Zuckerberg versus Krikorian.  Why?  My presence makes Zuckerberg sound like the voice of moderation.  It's hard to dismiss him as an open borders fanatic when I'm in earshot.

2. Mark paid me a nice compliment, calling me an "honest man" willing to unreservedly defend mass immigration.  But he paired this compliment with harsh words for mainstream pro-immigration thinkers.  Mark seems to think that they secretly agree with me, but aren't honest enough to admit it.

What evidence does Mark have for his conspiratorial view of his mainstream opponents?  None that I've seen.  He's just imputing fanciful hidden motives to people he barely knows.  Why fanciful?  Well, I've talked with plenty of mainstream pro-immigration thinkers.  If anything, my presence inclines them to exaggerate their support for immigration.  Still, they're sadly unfamiliar with the case for open borders, and almost as quick to reject the idea as Mark. 

3. I was pleasantly surprised that Mark engaged the "open borders would double GDP" argument.  The flaw, in his view, is the assumption that First World institutions would remain strong in the face of the immigration of billions. 

If billions came overnight, this would be a reasonable fear.  In reality, though, this mass migration would take decades.  That's plenty of time for the long-standing dynamic of immigration to work its magic.  The first generation of immigrants is too busy working and creating a new life for themselves to try to undermine our institutions or recreate their own.  They may form churches and social clubs, but new arrivals take the path of least resistance: Join preexisting American institutions at the ground floor and humbly work their way up.  Their kids, in contrast, grow up taking our institutions for granted.  Few second-generation immigrants know what institutions their parents lived under.  Even fewer want them back.  This is the way immigration to the U.S. worked for your ancestors, and I see no reason why it can't work on a much larger scale.  If the subjects of Russian Czars and German Kaisers left no visible marks on American institutions, why should we be scared of anyone else?  A billion immigrants over a century is well within our capabilities - especially when you realize that hundreds of millions of foreigners are pre-assimilated already.

4. In my talk, I suggested that open borders would look like an upscale version of the migration-fueled growth that China and India have enjoyed for the last few decades.  Mark accepted the comparison, then turned up his nose at China's polluted urban centers.  Do I call that progress? 

Absolutely.  China has a long way to go, but its growing cities - warts and all - are an earth-shaking improvement over the wretched rural poverty they're steadily eradicating.  Mark's cavalier attitude towards the tremendous accomplishments of the Chinese is revealing.  Instead of suppressing his myopic disgust for the ephemeral drawbacks of progress, he revels in it - and encourages others to do the same.  It's no wonder Mark rejects the most promising way to end global poverty in his lifetime.  He has little appreciation for the amazing progress he's already lived through.




COMMENTS (14 to date)
The flaw, in his view, is the assumption that First World institutions would remain strong in the face of the immigration of billions.

Agree almost entirely with Prof. Caplan except for a substantially lower level of confidence that Krikorian errs here. Perhaps one should start with Open Borders for the 100 million pre-assimilated only and gradually extend the experiment to the other billion?

Michael Byrnes writes:

This critique of immigration fits Arnold Kling's "civilzation vs barbarism" axis very well. It rests on the assumption that immigrants come here to take what we have.

ThomasH writes:

I agree that we could start with a large number of university graduates with reasonable English skills. I'm surprised that more National Security types do not see the geopolitical advantage of a larger population/GDP to counter China.

@ThomasH I agree and by chance made just that argument a few weeks ago here. http://specieaeternitatis.blogspot.com/2015/10/the-great-good-news-of-twentieth.html

Michael Byrnes writes:

This critique of immigration ... rests on the assumption that immigrants come here to take what we have.

I think that description is a little bit unfair. No sane person believes that the hundreds of million of Third World residents who would migrate to the US if they could are secretly agents of Karl Marx or Juergen Habermas determined undermine the US from inside.

A far more plausible, if not necessarily correct, argument is that these people have, by and large, no ill intentions and sincerely only seek to better their lot through hard work in the US. But most of them come from cultures in which the basic conditions--the rule of law, the benefits of competition, the sacredness of private property, the tolerance for political and ideological pluralism--that have enabled prosperity and freedom in the US (and similar countries) are not appreciated. (If these conditions were respected in the countries of origin, they would be rich too and only small numbers would wish to migrate to the US.)

So when large groups of such people arrive and eventually achieve the political power commensurate with their numbers, they will tend to use it to destroy these conditions--not because they are "evil," but because they innocently fail to understand that in so doing they are also destroying the wealth that originally drew them here.

Christopher Chang writes:

As Sub Specie notes, if Bryan simply revised his recommendation to "open borders for pre-assimilated people", allowed polities to judge for themselves what kind of foreigners qualified as "pre-assimilated", acknowledged that it's the pre-assimilation process that does the economic heavy lifting and enables true open borders in the future, and shifted the emphasis of his near/medium-term political advocacy to pre-assimilation, he'd be on very solid ground.

However, Bryan's actual position, that open borders has economic primacy and should be implemented ASAP, has already been empirically falsified by Sweden. (Note that a fair way to assess Sweden is to compare [Sweden + some poor immigrant source countries] with [US + China]. The economic benefits to migrants to Sweden have been minuscule in comparison to the benefits of China sucking less, even after scaling the latter down for population.) And unfortunately, while I find Caplan's universalist ethics more appealing than Krikorian's nativism, I'm pretty sure that Caplan's recommendations are actually worse than Krikorian's when judged on universalist grounds.

Swami writes:

You have a great hypothesis, which I hope is right, that we can take hundreds of millions of immigrants without harming our institutions and cultural values in the process.

This is something which I would not accept though without experimentation. As such, we should probably talk about how to prove this case or learn how to adopt institutions to immigration. This either/or full immigration is simply a non starter. You can't even convince fellow libertarians of its wisdom.

We need to transition the conversation from foundational principles (which libertarians sooooo love) to actual, pragmatic experimentations and steps in this direction.

Libertarians need to stop just talking and start creating better institutions.

Pymander writes:

Is there a link to a recording of the debate/discussion?

ThomasH writes:

"So when large groups of such people arrive and eventually achieve the political power commensurate with their numbers, they will tend to use it to destroy these conditions--not because they are "evil," but because they innocently fail to understand that in so doing they are also destroying the wealth that originally drew them here."

I think there could be a grain of truth in this but it speaks to the rate of immigration and other variables that affect assimilation. The benefits and limits of markets have to be learned in every generation.

Kurt Schuler writes:

Guangzhou (Canton) is an example of the effects of migration. So is Detroit. So is Abidjan. Your nearly fact-free theorizing wins you no adherents outside your bubble.

FredR writes:

"If the subjects of Russian Czars and German Kaisers left no visible marks on American institutions, why should we be scared of anyone else? "

Spoken like somebody who's literally never cracked open a history book.

Larry writes:

Europe is exploring what happens when millions come effectively overnight. The Internet told me today that Sweden has Europe's highest incidence of rape and the Muslim males offend at a rate 22x that of other Swedes. If so, should the rest of Europe expect the same?

Peter Schaeffer writes:

Playing the race card by mentioning John Tanton is morally questionable and practically counterproductive. I guess we are supposed to ignore that the name of the NCLR comes from the work of a Mexican Nazi activist (José Vasconcelos).

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