Bryan Caplan  

Demography and Decency

Schengen, adieu... Intellectual regress...
The staunchest critics of immigration focus on demographic complaints.  We're currently a white/Christian/English-speaking/high-IQ country.  To maintain these favorable demographics, we have to heavily restrict or exclude contrary immigration.  Keep out non-whites.  Keep out non-Christians.  Keep out non-Anglophones.  Keep out people with low IQ.  Mainstream defenders of immigration usually meet these demographic complaints by (a) ignoring them, or (b) playing the "racism card."

Truth be told, I think the racism card usually fits.  But there's a much better response.  Unlike most complaints about immigration, demographic ills can clearly be remedied with more immigration!  Non-white immigration is messing up America?  Then let in enough white immigrants to keep the white share constant.  Non-Christian immigration is destroying our religious heritage?  Then let in enough Christians to keep the Christian share constant.  Non-Anglophones are turning English into a minority language?  Then let in enough English-speakers to balance them out.  Low-IQ immigration is making us dumb?  Then let in enough high-IQ immigrants to keep up smart.

This is certainly a viable solution given current levels of immigration.  The world has hundreds of millions of whites, Christians, English-speakers, and IQs>100.  At least tens of millions of each group would love to permanently move to the U.S.  Why haven't they?  Because it's illegal, of course.  If the U.S. selectively opened its borders to these groups, it could reverse decades of demographic change in a matter of years.  In fact, the U.S. could admit vastly more Third World immigrants without changing overall demographics a bit - as long as it concurrently welcomed First World immigrants to balance them.

So why not?  Most people - perhaps even including some supporters of open borders - will recoil at the thought of pandering to racism.  But this puts symbolism over substance.  If white and non-white foreigners should be free to move here, opening the doors to white foreigners is a big step in the right direction.  Furthermore, nullifying demographic objections to immigration helps keep the door to other kinds of immigration open.

But what about the people who fear demographic change?  I could be wrong, but I suspect they too will recoil at my proposal.*  Sure, admitting tons of the people they like cures whatever demographic ills they lament.  But it raises the status of immigration in general, and fails to put resented out-groups in their place.  In other words, they too put symbolism over substance. 

People who oppose immigration for demographic reasons will probably object that they're just pursuing the path of least resistance.  Cutting the quota for undesirable immigrants is a lot easier than raising the quota for desirable immigrants.  But they're wrong.  This is a classic Nixon-goes-to-China situation.  If die-hard critics of immigration fervently urge, "Let's let in more immigrants from Europe," who will gainsay them?  Sure, you could decry the supporters of European immigration as "racists," but the accused suddenly have a great defense: "How so?  We support just as much non-white immigration as you do."  Imagine if Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies, had eagerly lobbied to admit all Christian victims of ISIS, instead of predictably looking for an excuse to exclude them.  "Even Krikorian says we should let them in" is far more convincing than "Once again, Krikorian says we should keep them out."

Balancing allegedly bad immigration with good immigration is a keyhole solution.  It takes anti-immigration arguments at face value, then tries to address them as cheaply and humanely as possible.  If demographic shifts frighten you, there is no need to abandon common decency, to lash out at desperate foreigners searching for a better life.  Just welcome the immigration we're getting - plus all the extra immigrants required keep our demographics steady.

* There is a prominent lobby for high-skilled immigration, which covertly amounts to lobbying for high-IQ immigration.  But prominent proponents of high-skilled immigration almost always rhetorically focus on labor and fiscal effects, not demographics. 

COMMENTS (26 to date)
E. Harding writes:

Makes sense, but there really aren't that many White high IQ conservatives outside the U.S. willing to move here. And opening immigration from any category of men substantially leads to a slippery slope -your proposal is an unstable equilibrium.

And I don't mind Christian Arab immigration from, say, Lebanon. Maybe also Iraq and Palestine. But by no means Syria.

Brandon Berg writes:

An obvious rejoinder is that if we let in more white, Christian, high-IQ immigrants (or whatever the preferred criteria are) without letting in more immigrants that don't fit those criteria, we get even better demographic results than with your offer.

Handle writes:
But what about the people who fear demographic change? I could be wrong, but I suspect they too will recoil at my proposal.

You should put that to the test. Set up a surveymonkey or surveyusa web-poll and see what results you get.

To make the question even more pure of a test, stipulate that the hypothetical "in current ratios" immigration system won't disturb the demographic, or political balance, or otherwise more than negligibly disturb the current economic equilibrium, labor market, wages, etc.

You are saying those assumptions probably won't make any different for immigration skeptics. I predict the opposite result, that you would see a significant bump in support.

Anonymous writes:

This is an argument that a) I've never heard before, and b) is great.

Nice one, Bryan.

Shane L writes:

I'd say there's some truth to this, but it might overstate the number of people from other developed countries who want to move to the US, and greatly understate the number who want to come from developing countries.

To give a simple example, here are the populations trends of:
- Europe and Central Asia
- Sub-Saharan Africa

In 1960 Europe had over 400 million more people than sub-Saharan Africa. In 2014 sub-Saharan Africa had about 70 million more people than Europe. The natural increase in developed countries is low or negative, in very poor countries it is extremely high.

Open borders will probably mean tens or hundreds of millions of young Africans moving to the US, and many fewer Europeans. Maybe that is fine, but that is probably a fact for the moment while growth rates are still high in Africa or other developing regions.

Nathan W writes:

Interesting argument, but I think you highly overestimate the number of smart, white people who want to live in the USA.

I think you'd have a hard time finding a million highly educated white people who want to move to the US in any given year (unless they already had a super high paying job offer, but these positions aren't being created in the millions these days). But meanwhile, in any given year there are hundreds of millions of poorly educated non-white people who would jump at the chance if they could.

Also, highly educated white people who actually want to live in a country with a much problems with violence, racism and anti-science thinking as the USA, and who may also be willing to tolerate paying taxes into a system of warmongering "interventions" and which tolerates vastly unequal education and health care, etc. are probably from Eastern Europe. If the racists start to think about this, they might start reverting to Red Scare anti-communist lines of thinking.

As for the number of ENGLISH speaking smart (highly educated) white people who want to move to the USA permanently? You'd have to practically shut down immigration to keep demographics at all similar. Because, honestly, most white people who are not American could hardly be dragged kicking and screaming to live in America, even as much as one might enjoy a holiday to NY, Florida, the Grand Canyon and coastal California. For starters, outside of the USA, a vast majority of people could hardly tolerate the thought of having to actually come face to face with the types of people who outspokenly support, well, just about anything that most Republicans have to say.

Again, interesting argument. But in practical terms I don't think it would get very far at all among any of the desired groups, let alone actual policy.

pongogogo writes:

How does this differ from the immigration policy of Israel?

B.R. writes:

Christianity would be a problem.

Pretty much dead in white countries outside of the US. Only Poland has a few million people still taking it seriously. Altogether, there might be only 20-30 million white Christians outside of the US altogether. And that would be mostly old people t oo.

Urstoff writes:

Contrary to other commenters, I think the desire to immigrate to the US by white Westerners would increase greatly if they knew it were easy to do so. As it is, most of them know that it's very, very hard to immigrate to the US.

Daublin writes:

Several commentors predict that nobody in the preferable categories will want to move to the U.S.

Isn't that even more of a reason to try? If none of the desirable immigrants take us up on the offer, then we lost nothing.

Colombo writes:

I don't believe in racism as a viable explanation.
I believe, but I have no proof, that some people have an irrational fear to people of other races, and some people have rational fears to people of other races, and some people have no fear but just hate people of other races for the sake of hate. I have no proof, because I can't read other people's minds, and even if I could, I could only present that evidence to other people who can also read minds and check what I say. It would be abusive to present that evidence to non-mind readers and ask them to just have faith.

But perhaps there is simpler explanation, other than fear and hate, to account for the illegality of immigration and the inmorality of this laws. It is very simple: people don't want competition. Thus, fear and hate are exaggerated to defend laws. Controlling competition is the original underlying reason of most laws. Fear and hate alone are not enough to enact laws. Why should be different in the case of immigration laws?

If people had to defend the laws they like using only the real reason for the existence of those, then most laws would but disappear, and people would be speechless, and there would be a very pleasurable silence.

In conclusion: racism cannot be only emotions.

Is it possible to regulate emotions? Is it possible to fear and hate people of your own race? Is it possible to pass legilsation that favors people from other races at the expense of people from your own race, just because the legislators' emotions towards their own race?

I think that explanations based on power and money are more realistic than thosed based on raw emotions. The pen (reason) controls where the tip of the sword (emotions) points.

Jay writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Anonymous writes:

@Nathan W

My impression from living outside the US is that some people view it like that, while others view it as the place where everything interesting happens. Your description sounds more like the consensus of those inside your bubble than it does an accurate representation of the entirety of the non-US West.

Joseph Levin writes:

This feels a bit like a straw man arguement. I am sure there are people who oppose immigration for the racial/IQ reasons you say but I hear two primary concerns about immigration only one of which correlates with your arguement. First, there are supporters of immigration in general who are upset by illegal immigration. Second, there is a cultural concern that is correlated with race for historical reasons but is not the same. The history of immigration shows different communities have been more 'successful' at assimilating into American culture then others. What ever the underlying reason for the difficulties of some communities to assimilate it is not a racial arguement to prefer immigrants who do assimilate. Yes most European ethnicities meet that requirement but so do communities from Asia, Africa and South America.

I have a related question I have struggled with. I, most of the time, am inclined to support the libertarian position on social and economic issues; particularly in the cases of individual to individual relations. What I struggle with is how to incorporate community into the model. What rights if any should a community have as a group separate from the individual? If none them how can a community maintain itself in the presence of a hostile or just assertive alternate community/group/culture???

SFG writes:

As I was going to say, it's a great, original argument. Here are my counterarguments (I don't remember them verbatim, but these should be similar):

1. Countries full of educated white people don't *want* to come to the USA. Being an American entails a much higher degree of risk than being a European: you are responsible for your own health insurance (until recently), have much smaller unemployment benefits and old-age benefits, and so on. Only a very rare person with a great degree of entrepreneurial drive and excellent skills would want to move from, say, Germany to the USA. You might argue we want such people (and they do come here), but then it no longer works for demographic equalization.

2. You could argue that being reduced to minority status is a valid worry, since there are many risks associated with minority status, particularly if you are a high-earning minority--the examples of the Jews in Weimar Germany and Overseas Chinese in Malaysia (as well as anyone else from World on Fire I forgot) come to mind.

[Mildly edited to remove now-concluded email discussion referred to in opening sentence. --Econlib Ed.]

Ak Mike writes:

There's a lot of amnesia in the immigration debates. Prof. Caplan's proposal is essentially the 1924 immigration restriction act, which allowed immigration from countries in proportion to the proportion of the U.S. population which derived from each country. This resulted in an immediate and huge reduction in total immigration with no particular rise in immigration from northern Europe, which now had the largest quota.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Interesting argument, but I think you highly overestimate the number of smart, white people who want to live in the USA.

I know at least three intelligent white people from Europe who had H1B visa screw ups and were forced to leave the US!

We are already throwing them out.

About 10% of current immigration to the US is from Europe.

[Of course, I also support higher levels of immigration for all races and skill levels.]

sam writes:

Contrary to the commenters here, there are plenty of white people who want to move to the US.

It's likely the entirety of Europe west of Poland would give it a very serious thought. A Bulgarian doctor earns about as much as a part-time American barista.

Given the current situation, a significant fraction of the PIIGS would quickly decamp as well. Permanently unemployed young people would gladly come over.

Finally, within the Northern European core, a significant fraction of the working class would trade their cramped and expensive cities for an American suburb.

Jeff writes:

I suspect you're wrong. I for one would be happy to have more immigration from Europe, Australia, and east Asia, as well, and I suspect many other Open Borders skeptics would feel the same. I think you are letting your sense of moral superiority get the best of you.

Phil writes:

what if the United States doesn't actually have a shortage of workers relative to the carrying capacity of its natural resources?

(or at least a shortage of workers relative to the amount that would increase instead of decrease the quality of life for those fortunate enough to already live there)


on an unrelated note - I'm glad your finally made it explicit that you believe many of the people who think differently about this than you do are racists

maybe that's true, but that doesn't make their thinking wrong

if a racist believes the sun rises in the east, that doesn't make it rise in the west, if a racist believes the Patriots won the Super Bowl last year, that doesn't mean the Seahawks did

to be intellectually persuasive, you need a better argument than, "people who disagree with this are racists" (which, in my opinion, an awful lot of your past posts on this topic look like)

John Morris writes:

If the proposal is merely to flush out the lies of the current open borders crowd then fine and dandy. But there are limits to engaging their public arguments since we all know they are lying.

It is obvious that from the 1965 act forward it has been explicit, but never stated in public, policy to make the US less White, less Christian, less successful. Any arguments that do not force that to be laid on the table for debate is avoiding the problem.

There are problems with the proposal though.

1. It implies doubling current actual immigration totals. Including the illegals. If the proposal doesn't include those numbers (but now made legal) the race card will be thrown and the argument ends there.

2. One of the major objections is to our failure (by design) to assimilate the immigrants. That problem doesn't change with this proposal since the exact same number of problem immigrants will be coming AND an equal number of easier to assimilate ones. So it makes things worse.

3. Another objection is that in a period of high unemployment it is daft to be importing millions, doubling the flow strengthens this objection. The fact they would be competing for middle class and higher jobs instead of "jobs Americans won't do" and camping in the Welfare State doesn't exactly reassure.

A.B Prosper writes:

European populations are all well below replacement fertility and surplus population is the driver for migration as much as poor conditions

Western Europe has decently pleasant conditions and population decline. Even liberalization would not increase migration into the US by a large amount.

Some, Christian refugees and entrepreneurial risk addicts yes but that is a relatively small number.

Eastern Europe is also in the same boat population wise though we probably could take in more of them if we are willing to accept the risk of large numbers of people from low trust former Communist countries.

I suppose we could take the entire White population of South Africa but we don't have work for them, if they all want to come here.

Besides the doesn't need immigrants, it really needs mass repatriation of people, 50 million or so and an end to growth based and Ponzi based schemes,

The economist Aaron "Captain Capitalist" Cleary sums it up better than I could here

Basically stop assuming constant increases in asset prices, constant growth and learn to pay the taxes for the level of government spending we want. Our long national habit of trying to avoid paying for things, even if it is the main reason the country was founded needs to end,

We are a grown up nation, we live within our limited means.

Nathan W writes:

Anonymous - cute. You disagree, therefore I live in a bubble. Never mind how big or small my bubble might be, but I would like to point out that it's a pretty poor mode of argumentation.

I agree that a lot is happening in America. I have two Canadian friends who live in NY, one a reasonably young and successful architect and one a reasonably young and successful artist. They both went to NY because that's a big place to be in those fields and because there is so much potential to grow compared to the smaller markets they come from.

But really, how many of these prospective white immigrants one might like to attract can a) cut it in NY (finance/art), Silicon Valley (software) or LA (entertainment media) or b) are willing to tolerate the aforementioned downsides.

As a freelance translator (French to English, mostly in economics and banking) who could choose to live anywhere in the world I want, since all I need in an internet connection, give me ONE reason that I would ever want to relocate to the USA. As I said, nice to check out some highlights ... but to live? Ugh, avoiding the obnoxious pharma and political ads is just about reason enough if you ask me, and we haven't even gotten into real issues like guns, violence, racism, expensive health care, etc.

Most well-educated white English-speaking people have a great number of choices. Why choose the USA?

Sam - I think you significantly overestimate the appeal of suburban living to non-Americans and non-Canadians. I swear to God, I've had hundreds of conversations with Europeans where American suburbs have come up, and I cannot recall a single positive statement, once, ever. Europeans would rather live near the centre, where it's all at, or out in the peaceful and serene countryside somewhere where there aren't too many rednecks.

John Morris says "It is obvious that from the 1965 act forward it has been explicit, but never stated in public, policy to make the US less White, less Christian, less successful."

I don't understand this perspective. What leads you to believe that any American leader or policymaker has ever had such an objective?

Floccina writes:

Chile, Argentina, Greece and Eastern Europe could provide many white 100+ IQ immigrants.
When I live in Honduras the locals seemed to think Guatemalans were Indians, Panamanians, Mexican and Nicaraguans were mixed and El Salvadorians and Cost Ricans were white, so one also might want to include El Salvador and Cost Rica whose populations are mostly white.
If you invited only those with some college you would get mostly white from all or Latin America.

Floccina writes:

An interesting question is: Do you think at some point population decline will cause any developed countries to start to recruit such people?

Anonymous writes:

@Nathan W

'Bubble' was not intended to be an insult. We all surround ourselves with people similar to ourselves. I was merely suggesting that maybe you've surrounded yourself by people who take a more negative view of the US than is average. I don't think your perspective that it's obviously a worse place to live than the rest of the West is universally shared, or even overwhelmingly common. Different people have different ideas on what is and isn't a downside, what is and isn't an advantage, and how big each factor is.

Also, to the extent that your argument is "the US is bad because it is unequal", that sounds like it would make it more appealing to the reasonably well-off people we're talking about, not less - they get to keep more of their income without being forced to give it to the poor. Whereas a poor person from a country with a large welfare state really would have little incentive to move to the US, unless they believed they would be better off with opportunities than free money.

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