David R. Henderson  

Freakonomics on Immigration

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Freakonomics has a nicely balanced treatment of the immigration controversy, highlighting the thinking of "open borders" advocate Alex Tabarrok, an economics professor at George Mason University and one of the two bloggers at marginalrevolution.com; Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, an economist who studies global migration; open borders critic Gene Callahan, an economics lecturer at St. Joseph's College; and Casey Mulligan, an economics professor at the University of Chicago.

The post/podcast is titled Is Migration a Basic Human Right? It's long, but worth reading.

The Freakanonomics style generally is not to make a sustained argument for something the way Econlog bloggers do, but to show various sides of an issue, without a whole lot of confrontation between the viewpoints, and let the readers/listeners choose. The upside of that style is that one doesn't feel browbeaten to agree. The downside is that they miss chances to have one side answer the other.

So I'm going to fill in the latter gap, by responding to Gene Callahan.

Before I do, though, I want to disagree with one statement that Stephen J. Dubner makes in the broadcast. Dubner, in his interview of Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, states:

We should say, you are, admittedly, probably, the No. 1 poster girl for immigration to the United States. We were pretty lucky to get you.

I don't think we were lucky at all to get someone who told people in the Mideast this.

Now to Callahan's point. Callahan, responding to Alex Tabarrok's views, says:

Being that he's a libertarian, he [Alex] has a belief in strong property rights. So, presumably, he doesn't feel that Bill Gates, for instance, has to let my kids into his family, because Bill Gates's kids have a lot of opportunities that my kids don't. So, if we don't have that principal in terms of property rights, why does it suddenly become mandatory in terms of nations?

In other words, Callahan is reasoning from property rights of individuals to an alleged property right of the U.S. government. It doesn't work. Where did the government get this right to decide for us whether we can hire, rent to, or buy from an immigrant? Indeed, if government has the right to decide that Bill Gates doesn't have the right to hire an immigrant to work in his house, couldn't one just as cogently argue, invoking the property rights that Callahan wants to claim for the government, that the government does have the right to let Callahan's kids into Bill Gates's house despite Gates's wishes? Why would one government assertion of a property right to control Gates's actions be privileged (as the lawyers say) over a different government assertion of a property right to control Gates's actions?


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Gene Callahan writes:

"In other words, Callahan is reasoning from property rights of individuals to an alleged property right of the U.S. government."

No! Tabarrok made the claim that it is "Wrong to deny people opportunities just because of where they were born." I am pointing out that he doesn't really believe this. I said nothing whatsoever about property rights, and made no property rights analogies.

I suspect that Tabarrok's actual position is that, "It's wrong for nation-states to deny people opportunities just because of where they were born, but it is fine to deny people opportunities just because of where they were born based on my idea of just property rights." But:

1) It is not my job to guess what he really believes: I can just respond to what he actually claimed.
2) If he said the latter, it would sound a lot less high-minded. Which is perhaps why that wasn't the way he put it.

Gene Callahan writes:

Correction: I should have written "I said nothing whatsoever about nation states having property rights." My apologies for typing too quickly.

Also, I just looked back at the transcript, and I see they did not include the comment from Tabarrok that they asked me to respond to. So I realize there is no way for anyone else to realize what claim I was refuting!

Michael writes:

@Gene: It's kind of sneaky to generalise from limits to freedom imposed by others' property rights to some unrelated limit on a different freedom.
Property rights limit freedom; still, libertarians embrace them as a net good, and necessary for at least some freedom in an imperfect world.
Other institutions also limit freedom and don't have the beneficial effects of property rigts, so libertarians oppose them.
Are property rights an ambivalent point for libertarians? Arguably. Are libertarians disqualified to oppose other, more clear-cut limits to freedom? I don't see why.
Bringing up property rights in the first place is a play on the non-absolute nature of property rights WHICH ANY REASONABLE PERSON ACCEPTS. In a way, property rights are a trickier issue than immigration. Alex Tabarrok didn't bring them up. Why did you?

Matt Moore writes:

I haven't decided on the case for open borders yet. But I note that Michael reasons that we accept property right limitations on freedom because they are conducive to overall freedom.

Therefore, we might accept other illiberties in order to defend overall freedom.

The institutions that have produced broad based personal freedom are historically rare. The European experience of mass immigration, while certainly net positive from a static utilitarian position, is starting to exact strain on those institutions.

First, most generally, there is less common feeling and trust between people. It would obviously be better if this weren't true, but it is.

Second, and more specifically, there exist small groups of migrants whose values are inimicalable, if not outright hostile, to liberalism.

As I said, I dont have a final position yet. It seems to me to be a question of magnitude, and its likely that the vast benefits accruing to the migrants are the larger factor either from a utilitarian or liberty-maximising perspective at the moment.

But it is a trade off, and to deny that fact, as some academics do by asserting that the average migrant is more liberty-supporting and conducive to the stability of liberty-producing culture and institutions than the average existing resident, is palpably not the European experience and is fuel to the xenophobic fire.

Handle writes:

This conversation seems to be about as intellectually fertile as some theological argument. Is God a Libertarian?

There is a big difference between "I prefer to live in a world in which ... " and "This is the One Truth and no heresy is valid."

How are we supposed to resolve disputes about the limits of government and what is and is not on this list of "fundamental human rights"? Is there some kind of empirical physics experiment we can preform? Is there some concrete system of metaphysics and epistemology behind these transcendental, indisputable claims, some revealed truth or sacred book that we can point to?

Simply pronouncing that the subject of legitimate controversy is a fundamental human right is an abusive and underhanded way of stiffing good-faith discourse, "What are you, against human rights?!"

Michael writes:

Human rigts were originally limits to sovereign power over individuals. Preposterous, I know. They did not, originally, limit violence directed outwards. We have come a long way since then, and, at least in a normative sense, all violence has become problematic, and -- at least in certain world views -- collective violence more problematic than individual violence.

It's certainly not the only way to see things, and maybe sovereign violence against non-violent outsiders is still justified. Maybe we are a collective united against a hostile world out there and honestly want to be left alone.

I just doubt it bodes well for human rights in our countries to see it this way. There are no human rights in a fortress under siege. Will the powers that be refrain from doing to citizens what they get to do against migrants?

Especially since the representatives of our sovereign power don't have a very good track record of not meddling in outside affairs in the first place...

Pete writes:

"We were pretty lucky to get you."

Listening to the podcast, I took Dubner to mean that Freakonomics was lucky get Albright to participate in the Podcast.

Gene Callahan writes:

@Michael: " It's kind of sneaky to generalise from limits to freedom imposed by others' property rights to some unrelated limit on a different freedom."

And I did no such "sneaky" thing. I just noted that Tabarrok did not really believe what he claimed to believe. But Freakonomics did not publish the quote they asked me to respond to, so your confusion is understandable.

Michael writes:

Gene: if Alex believes "It's wrong for nation-states to deny people opportunities just because of where they were born" and you (admittedly second-guess) that he truly believes "It's wrong for nation-states to deny people opportunities just because of where they were born, but ..." then you effectively concede that he DOES believe what he claims, you only add something which sounds like a qualification to you.
In fact, it is no qualification, but merely an addition. I think I already argued that it's actually a plausible addition, because property rights are a bit of an ambivalent issue. I don't see how a sensible position on property taints a more radical position on a supposed human right to migration.

Note: in my view, human rights have a completely different rationale than property rights. Property rights are, if you like, a necessary evil, they limit a lot of people's freedom for the benefit of the one owner, but in our fallen world, that appears to be te best we can do. Though I'm open to argument that we may have communism one day (when scarcity is completely overcome -- if that is even possible)
Human rights, to me, are an unqualified good, they limit coercion by the sovereign against me, and -- to me at least -- any such limit, if at all feasible, is welcome. But your mileage may vary: I fully agree that other people may enjoy a strong sovereign, and are willing to give up freedom to it.

I think you can argue against Alex' view that migration is a plausible candidate for a human right (but I think he has a good chance to defend this, though he might not have said enough on this in the podcast). And you can argue whether strong human rights (limits on the sovereign) are desirable. That's ultimately a normative question.
(Though, empirically, liberal states seem to have actually fared better and been stronger than authoritarian ones -- so beware :-)

Josiah writes:

David,

The issue isn't whether the government can prohibit you from hiring an immigrant, but whether the government can prohibit people from entering its territory. If you want to hire a foreigner to do a job that doesn't involve their coming onto U.S. territory then that's not an immigration matter.

RPLong writes:

Josiah - The government can enforce its ability to prevent border crossings without limiting the opportunities of people who are doing the crossing in order to get jobs. Under the current state of things, a German can come over to visit Yellowstone, but cannot stay a while and teach a math class for remuneration. It's not a particularly radical idea to allow that German to stay and teach her math class. Or clean a house. Or take out the garbage. Or whatever.

There are certain things you can't say to the U.S. President, one of which is a life-threatening statement. No one would suggest that the enforcement of such a law is a violation of freedom of speech. But if I started a movement called "Open Mouths," which argued for unmitigated free speech, people would attempt to use this example as a reason why we can't have it. My position is, that's wrong.

Gene - If that is what you meant then your argument is wrong for another reason. The government's restriction of migration prevents people from making voluntary arrangements, or only enables them to do so at prohibitively large cost to one of the parties. There is nothing stopping you from pursuing an arrangement with Bill Gates with regard to your children. But if you were born in Peru, there would be something: immigration restrictions. All open borders advocates are suggesting is that we let Bill Gates and Hernando de Soto Polar enter into whatever arrangement they want without letting de Soto's having to travel get in the way.

Capt. J Parker writes:

In order to defend personal property rights from say, an invading army, a nation may claim the right to prevent people from crossing its borders. So, there are some conditions where a government's right to prevent people from crossing borders follows directly from personal property rights. I read Dr. Henderson's criticism as saying: personal property rights categorically do not confer on government the ability to prevent people from entering the territory it claims control of. If this is what he is saying it is false.

You might say there are obvious differences between a uniformed invading army and an individual looking for better economic opportunity. But, those might be viewed as differences of degree and not kind depending on how you define "foreign invasion" and "property rights." My point is that it should be up to the advocates of open borders to explain where and how the line will be drawn to determine the extent of legitimate government exclusion at borders instead of seeming to deny there is any obvious legitimacy.

Capt. J Parker writes:

In order to defend personal property rights from say, an invading army, a nation may claim the right to prevent people from crossing its borders. So, there are some conditions where a government's claim of a right to prevent people from crossing borders follows directly from personal property rights of its citizens. I read Dr. Henderson's criticism as saying: personal property rights categorically do not confer on government the ability to prevent people from entering the territory it claims control of. If this is what he is saying it is false.

You might say there are obvious differences between a invading army and an individual looking for better economic opportunity. But, those might be viewed as differences of degree and not kind depending on how expansively you define "foreign invasion" and "property rights." My point is that I think it is up to the advocates of open borders to explain where and how the line will be drawn to determine the extent of legitimate government exclusion at borders instead of seeming to deny there is any obvious legitimacy.

Michael writes:

Capt.: miraculously, RPLong replied to your argument before you made it

Capt. J Parker writes:

Michael,
I don't think RPLong did address my issue.
I believe that a legitimate role of government is defending my life, liberty and property from those that might cross the boarder to put me in jeopardy. I also believe that government's ability to prohibit voluntary exchange should be minimized. These two things at times are in conflict. Open boarders advocates, IMHO, never articulate the principles to be employed in resolving the conflict. RPLong simply says the "it can be done" with no mention of how.

Suppose the German teacher is part of an army of Germans that come to steal trade secrets. Current US laws offer a certain level of protection for trade secret owners from theft. Open borders decreases that level of protection. What is the basis to privilege the rights of those wanting to hire Germans over the property rights of those wanting to maintain their existing level of protection of their trade secrets? I'm not claiming there is no basis do so. I am claiming that the open borders folks never admit there is a need to do so.

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