Bryan Caplan  

Retroactive Krikorianism

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The last time I faced off with Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, he sketched his ideal immigration policy.  (start at 15:10)

Who should get in?  Three types of people:

1. Spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens.

2. "Einsteins."  Mark tentatively suggests a minimum IQ of 140, but the core principle is admitting people at the "tops of their fields on the planet."

3. Humanitarian cases, "very strictly limited" - about 50,000 per year.

I suspect many - perhaps most - Americans would embrace the Krikorian Criteria, or at least prefer his approach to the status quo.  Which leads me to a thought experiment I call Retroactive Krikorianism.  Imagine Mark's criteria had governed U.S. immigration policy since the founding of the American republic.  Now ask yourself two questions.

1. How many of your immigrant ancestors would have met any of the Krikorian Criteria?

Personally, all of my immigrant ancestors would probably have fallen short; I've heard they were smart, but no "geniuses."  Most of Mark's ancestors wouldn't have made his cut either.  You could dismiss this as special pleading, or even a sign of Mark's integrity.  But Mark and I are hardly weird cases.  I doubt more than 5% of current Americans could honestly claim all their immigrant ancestors would have gained entry under the Krikorian Criteria.  Given Mark's rules, then, almost none of us would be here today.  Indeed, most Americans have at least one ancestor who would only have been admitted under something approaching open borders. 

Next question:

2. Would this country be a better place today if Mark's criteria had kept these immigrant ancestors out?

You could say, "Under Retroactive Krikorianism, far fewer people would enjoy life in the United States.  But at least life would be markedly better for the descendants of the original colonists."  But the latter clause is hard to believe.  Consider: The U.S. has close to the highest standard of living in the world.  It's the center of global innovation.  It's the heart of global culture.  It's easy to imagine far fewer people enjoying this bounty, but very hard to imagine that sharply curtailing immigration would have made the bounty per-person noticeably greater than it already is.  

My point: Though the Krikorian Criteria appeal to many Americans looking forward, they would appeal to virtually no American looking backwards.  Open borders, in contrast, scares Americans looking forward, even though most of them wouldn't even be here to enjoy America if something close to open borders hadn't prevailed in the past.  True, times change.*  But it's better to base policy on massive benefits that really happened rather than hypothetical disasters that have failed to materialize for centuries.

Happy Belated Open Borders Day!

* Anti-immigration arguments, in contrast, barely change with the times.  How many of the arguments now featured on the CIS website would be any less relevant in 1850 or 1900?  At tonight's debate, Mark told me his The New Case Against Immigration spells out the radical differences between historic and modern immigration, but if he really eschewed the timeless complaints about immigration, it would be a very short book.

COMMENTS (41 to date)
Mr. Econotarian writes:

140 IQ is about 0.63% of the population (on the 16 SD Stanford-Binet scale).

Perhaps Krikorian would support "retroactive deportation" for anyone below IQ 140?

Mr. Econotarian writes:

BTW the description on Amazon of "The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal" says:

"Wherever they come from, today’s immigrants are actually very similar to those who arrived a century ago. But they are coming to a very different America—one where changes in the economy, society, and government create different incentives for newcomers."

And in particular "In short, the problem isn’t them, it’s us."

But it isn't clear that he is excited about changing government to solve those problems...

LauraM writes:

No -- The retroactive thought experiment suffers from a signal flaw. Times have changed, the economy has changed. We simply cannot absorb as many people as in the past – esp with the decline of manufacturing. Also, attitudes and mores change. The temptations of multi-culturalism, replacing a strong ethos of respect for our western/anglo traditions and the imperative of assimilation, make immigration more destructive of our society and institutions today. Laxer policies may have worked then, but they are dysfunctional now. We need to pause and consolidate.

LauraM writes:

Oh, and one more thing: the attractive nuisance of the welfare state, which didn't exist back then. Completely different landscape today.

Christopher Chang writes:

Under a wide range of assumptions, it's optimal to raise the bar for admitting new people as the existing population increases and the commons improves. This should be especially obvious to economists who understand the principle of diminishing returns. While I believe it is more restrictive than necessary, there's no implicit time-inconsistency in Krikorian's position.

Undervalued people are best off joining newer, not-yet-fully-developed countries, and working to help them become developed; this simultaneously creates more global value and less internal political unrest. There is an obvious analogy to startups vs. large established companies.

Michael Crone writes:

The argument about point 2 seems flawed to me. Regression to the mean suggests that any significant change in US history would result less prosperous conditions now. That doesn't imply that the US should imitate its past.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

LauraM is correct. Policy depends upon the situation. At one time, America was unpopulated and it was good to populate it. Now, it is not required so much.

Thomas B writes:

We want people who have money and/or are productive, not smart layabouts or dysfunctional geniuses.

To get a work permit for the US, I propose:
Deposit $50k with the government (can be employer sponsored).
File income taxes each year.
If net income taxes paid > $20k, you can stay
If net income taxes paid < $20 k, you leave
You get your $50k back when you leave.

After 5 years you get a green card and the restrictions are lifted.
After 10 years you are eligible for citizenship.

Keep it simple.

[html fixed. Reminder: If you use the keyboard less-than sign, it conflicts with html codes, so your comment will be cut off. Please use &lt; instead. For more info, see our FAQ.--Econlib Ed.]

Don Boudreaux writes:


Your points about the welfare state and culture have been addressed many times at this blog; they are severely wanting. The welfare-state point is especially weak when it is investigated.

As for your point about our alleged declining ability to "absorb immigrants," I believe that it, too, is wanting. I addressed this in this essay. (Although written in 2002, the data in the essay likely have turned since then even more favorably in the direction of greater 'ability to 'absorb.') And see also this one.

Sieben writes:

Krikorian probably favors his policy for the status quo. Things probably seem fine-ish to him now, but he views us as headed in the wrong direction. Krikorian would also probably favor liberalization of U.S. immigrant law several hundred years in the future when all places on earth are equally desirable to live.

The hypocrisy of merit-based immigration is that most U.S. citizens would fail. The argument that high school dropouts should get the full benefits of citizenship, while hardworking immigrants can't even be tolerated to come here conditionally, falls very flat.

Andrew_FL writes:

I literally wouldn't exist without fascism or communism, either, as my grandfathers would never have left their respectively fascist (Spain) and communist (Hungary) countries.

Capitalism must be a bad idea, just think what it would be like if we applied it retroactively and I wasn't here to point out what a ridiculous argument you actually just made.

Psmith writes:

I'm somewhat sympathetic to open borders, but vulgar universalism like we see here (and with all this "but would you deport low-IQ natives??? checkmate citizenists" stuff) is just assuming the conclusion you're trying to prove. Many thoughtful and philosophically serious believers in immigration restriction think that we are not obliged to maximize some global utility function at the expense of the people who, by historical happenstance, are currently within a given set of borders, nor to adopt policies which could be temporally and spatially universalized ("but what about movement between states?"--but there's also a substantive objection to this, ask any native of Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, or parts of Texas, Utah, or Arizona about Californians sometime, or a New Hampshire native about immigrants from Massachussetts) without radically changing the look of things. A minimal restrictionist case is that it is in fact OK to look after the interests of the people in a particular geographic region at a particular time.

Jon Murphy writes:


Too add to Don's points, US Manufacturing isn't declining either.

See my three posts here, here, and here.

Tom D writes:

Don Boudreaux - I read the first of your essays on our ability to absorb immigrants, and your core point seems to me to be highly contestable:

"A measure of our ability to “absorb” workers is capital invested per worker—the amount of machinery and other tools in place for workers to use. "

It seems to me that this probably was once almost always true, but that now, it is only true to the extent that the capital and the workforce are compatible. As we increasingly take advantage of specialization, this matching becomes more and more brittle.

Don Boudreaux writes:

Tom D: Capital has always substituted for labor. See the Luddites of the early 18th century. But capital has also always been complementary to labor. Accounts of capital-labor substitutability are always louder than are accounts of capital-labor complementarity. The reason is that the former causes disruption for some workers while the latter creates higher-paying jobs - and bad news almost always gets more air time, print space, and politician breath than does good news.

MikeDC writes:

I suspect lots of folks might think of this retrospectively and imagine that without an influx of low skilled immigrant labor, low-skilled domestic labor would get the kind of boost in income and status necessary to get out of the poverty cultures of inner city ghetto culture (for low-skill blacks) and rural redneck culture (for low-skill whites).

Tom D writes:

Don Boudreaux - while you are correct, you are not addressing the core of the problem - significant imbalances in the rates of substitutability vs complementarity.

Sorry, but one sometimes can happen much faster and in greater volume than the other, and trends are not looking good in the next few decades. History will not be much of a guide here. The pace of change will be far greater than anything that has happened before. There is more to explain here than the differences in how people react to good news vs bad.

Gustavo writes:

"Would this country be a better place today if Mark's criteria had kept these immigrant ancestors out?"

America would have much less power because the lower population. Probably it would lose WWII and now Germany or URSS would be the world leader. Maybe America would become socialist. If you are afraid of China, let the migrants come and became Americans.

Jon Murphy writes:

@ Tom D;

Not really. Don't point is that people have been making the same arguments you're making pretty much since the beginning of time, both in periods of high immigration, low immigration, high innovation, low innovation etc.

You say you are pessimistic about the trends in the next few decades, but I wonder why? In just my lifetime, we have seen the world make amazing jumps. The standard of living and number of jobs worldwide have exploded in my 26 years alive. Capital and labor have been working together to make the world a far more wealthier and peaceful place.

In the future, I see issues steaming from demographic items like a graying population, but that's something immigration can help solve (in fact, I'd argue that if we don't want America to slip into economic stagnation, we need more immigrants).

sam writes:

The America of 1916 is not the America of 2016.

The America of 1916 did not have a welfare state. Most economic transactions were free-market, that is to say both participants judged the transaction to be beneficial.

Thus an increase in immigrants could only benefit the citizens, as the majority of interactions with the citizens would be mutually beneficial.

The America of 2016 has a welfare state. The government redistributes from one group to another group. One group is harmed and the other helped.

An increase in immigrants is now only beneficial if the immigrants are the ones being distributed from, and not the ones being distributed to. Thus only certain types of immigrants are likely to benefit the citizens.

Jon Murphy writes:


Please see Don Boudraeux's comments above to deal with the "welfare state" canard.

But, in a more general sense, I'd like to know why nobody makes that same argument in regard to free trade of capital and goods. Why is it only free trade of labor where people are suddenly staunch defenders of the welfare state?

Tom D writes:

Jon Murphy -

First off, I'm only pessimistic about our economy's ability to provide opportunities for workers with below average ability to adapt. I think this is a great time to be alive for most people.

Second, I think the next few decades will be a time of momentous change. I do not think all economic observations that have been reliable for the past couple of centuries will necessarily continue to be useful.

Almost everything will be happening dramatically faster than before and that will change things. It will be harder for economies to maintain equilibriums that once could be taken for granted. There is no historical context for understanding what's next. Things probably will turn out more good than bad, but it will likely be unpredictable for some time.

jerseycityjoan writes:

Bringing this "thought experiment" from the theoretical into the real-world of 2016 America -- and the future America that we can see ahead -- shuts it down for me.

I admit that I want future Americans to live as much as possible the way Americans did in the post-WWII period, a time when things got better for the vast majority of our people of all conditions. Things got better both economically and socially for us.

That means I cannot support open borders for today or the future.

That we allowed most European people to come to the US and granted them and all their descendants citizens and most of those who came here to stay up until around 1920 is an indeniable fact. The majority of current American citizens are here because of that.

But we cannot allow our prior actions to determine our future ones on immigration, population growth, etc. We are supposed to be a free people. We are and should continue to be a people who decide the future for ourselves. We should also remember that the decisions we make on immigration and population growth bind future generations. If there are too many, Americans of the future cannot send recent arrivals and the descendants back.

Jon Murphy writes:


I think I get what you're saying, but my question to you is "why?" Why would our economy have a more difficult time dealing with low-skilled workers than in the past? Most of the issues I see arise from regulation and things like minimum wage, which can easily be dealt with.

But here's the other thing: immigration doesn't just flow willy-nilly. Like all other economic resources, it goes where there is demand. If there is no demand for low skilled labor in the US, then there would be no reason for low skilled immigration to come. They'd go elsewhere.

Jon Murphy writes:


How can we be a free people if we have closed borders?

Kurt Schuler writes:

Here is the population of the USA as a percentage of the population of Britain, the foreign country from which the largest share of Americans have some ancestry:

1850: 85
1900: 180
2016: 497

Obviously something has changed over time. To neglect it is unconvincing. At least you need an argument for why it doesn't matter.

Jon Murphy writes:

This blog post got me thinking. You point out some opportunity costs from immigration restrictions on the immigrant side, but there are also some on the domestic side. For every dollar spent on immigration control, that's one less dollar in a taxpayer's pocket to use productively. For every person staffed in the required regulatory state, that's one less person who can provide something useful.

This prosecution of peaceful people is hardly cost-less.

(Shameless self-promotion) This post inspired me to write my own post

Levi Russell writes:

This whole debate is in desperate need of disaggregation. Are the costs and benefits of open and closed borders evenly dispersed? If not, who bears more of the costs or obtains more of the benefits under either policy?

To put it another way, ask yourself this question: "Would I want to stand at the edge of the Rio Grande River near McAllen or Laredo on the day the US govt announces its "open border" policy?"

Laredo and McAllen are fine cities... it's what lurks on the other side of the border that frightens people. Yes, I know immigration restrictions are the cause of many of the issues along the southern border, but understanding distributional impacts better might lead to a better strategy for Caplan and friends.

Jon Murphy writes:

@Kurt Schuler:

I don't understand your point.

@Levi Russel:

That fear you mention is irrational. Basing policies on fear leads to tyranny (as in this case).

I will gladly stand on the border when the US announces a return to open borders policy, just as I gladly stand in Nashua or Salem (two cities on the NH-MA line).

To paraphrase Don Boudreaux, there is no economic reason to treat international immigration any different than domestic immigration.

thomas b writes:


See my post at March 17, 6:32am.

If the concern is transfers, then tax returns are what matters, and IQ and all this other stuff aren't.

Keep it simple. If you pay significant net taxes, you're in. If not, you're not.

phil writes:

In general, I’d like to emphasize that you can change your mind about what policies you’d like in the future without admitting you were wrong in the past. The smuggest way to rationalize changing your mind is to emphasize that your old policies were so successful that the current reality is so different that it simply requires a reasonable course correction.

I tend to think like this because I have a pretty good historical memory, and I’m old, so I remember a fair amount about what the past was like. Most people aren’t going to remember the past that well, so they will tend to look for Permanently True policy ideas that they can support under any and all circumstances. They will especially tend toward demanding more of the same of whatever worked for them in the past, whether tax cuts for the 0.001% if they are Republicans or more minority rights/privileges if they are Democrats, even if they’ve largely won those battles are now mostly engaged in bayoneting defeated enemy stragglers trying to hide in the bushes.

Levi Russell writes:

Jon Murphy,

Your comparison is asinine. Are there heavily armed, violent drug lords murdering and pillaging on a regular basis all along the MA/NH line? If there were and you suddenly decreased the cost of them moving across said line, do you think being in close proximity to the border would subject you to their violence? It seems as though you're living in a fantasy world. Just because current immigration and drug laws are causing the problem doesn't mean the problems will, as if by magic, disappear instantaneously when the policies are changed!

Jon Murphy writes:


That is a separate issue from immigration. If peaceful people want to come over, we should welcome them. If criminals want to, they should be either arrested or turned away. 'Tis the same way domestic immigration works, too.

Besides, drug violence can easily be ended by ending the drug war, which, again, separate issue.

As an aside, we do have a huuuuuuuge drug issue up here in NH. A fair amount of violent crime because of it, and some of it is cross-border.

Tom D writes:

Jon Murphy - "Why would our economy have a more difficult time dealing with low-skilled workers than in the past?"

Even if low skilled workers are just as adept at transitioning to different opportunities as they have in the past, they have to face:

1. Much higher rates of job destruction

As I said, things are happening much faster, so destruction is outpacing transition. In the past, this may have happened in one sector at a time. Now it is happening across the spectrum of low wage jobs. When was the last time you saw an exciting new company create an entire new class of low skill jobs? (Maybe Uber?).

2. Much lower barriers to international competition

Massive improvements in the efficiency of moving goods and services around the world means a huge wave of new competition.

3. Inequality - harsh manual work is increasingly viewed as demeaning

None of those factors is trending in the favor of low skilled workers.

Thomas B writes:

@Tom D,

Your point 3. goes the other way. If harsh manual work is increasingly viewed as demeaning, it should require higher pay rates to attract people to it. If the job is necessary, and its social status falls, its pay should rise (and, by the way , vice versa).

Levi Russell writes:

"If peaceful people want to come over, we should welcome them. If criminals want to, they should be either arrested or turned away. 'Tis the same way domestic immigration works, too."

Total oversimplification.

jerseycityjoan writes:

@John Murphy

You ask me "How can we be a free people if we have closed borders?"

My brief answer is: How can we be a free people if we have open borders?

What does citizenship -- which includes ownership -- mean if a country has open borders?

For that matter, what is a country once control of citizens over what happens to them and around them is relinquished to any and all from around the world?

I can't see how the US can remain a country in which citizen-owners remain in control with open borders. Also if other countries do not have open borders, this becomes a situation in which the US gives but American citizens cannot do abroad what we allow others to do here.

You will have to tell me what you have in mind, what we, the people (not business, the government or the immigrants themselves), would get for what we would give up.

Kurt Schuler writes:

Jon Murphy (March 18, 6:54 AM):

Given your other posts, it is not surprising that you did not understand my point, which was that the United States is not the lightly populated country of years ago. We now have about five times the population of Britain, the country that has had the greatest influence on our people and laws. So far, so good, generally, but what would the effects of the same pace of population growth relative to Britain over another 50 or 150 years be? Can American political institutions be further scaled up to such levels without diminishing freedoms that libertarians prize other than open borders? Would the environmental effects be negligible? How crowded do Americans want the country to be? Like Europe? (The population would have to more than double.) Like the Netherlands? (The population could rise to as many as 4 billion people.)

Whatever the answers, it should be obvious that Mark Krikorian and company can point to something that is a lot different about the United States, relative to many other countries, comparing today to 1850 or 1900. When I read Bryan Caplan, I find that unfortunately he seems unable to understand the full import of the arguments on the other side. In my view that is why he lost the Intelligence Squared debate.

Tom D writes:

Thomas B - Do you see a significant rise in wages for low skill jobs? This is a little more complicated than a narrow observation about supply and demand.

Thomas B writes:

Tom D,

I was aiming to address the usual complaint about immigrants in the simplest possible way. The usual complaints are a) that they come here and consume social benefits and b) that they come here and undermine wages for low-income Americans.

My proposal means that work permits would be available only to those who work at jobs paying substantially above the average (to pay $20k or more in taxes, you're not competing with low-income Americans for jobs), and who would be net contributors to the cost of maintaining the country.

There are also occasional complaints that immigrants compete with American engineers and scientists, but I don't think that generates nearly the same broad resistance. I think we all realize that anyone with that level of intelligence and capability ought to be able to do just fine - and is much better placed to capture other benefits from the broader social contributions of high-wage immigrants.

My own preference would be even simpler: immigrants get work permits when they present a deposit to cover a one-way ticket home. If they ask for social support before reaching some minimum total social security contributions, they get it, in the form of their own money back - as a one-way ticket home. But I was shooting for something with a bit more protection for low-income Americans.

John S writes:

Kurt Schuler,

Big fan of your contributions to Free Banking research, but I respect you more for the fact that you are one of the few libertarians who speaks out against the widespread, mindless devotion to open borders and the non-aggression "principle"/joke (I appreciated your post on Japanese aggression in WWII).

Do libertarian extremists really believe all would be well if any employer could "hire" new workers at will from the Middle East?

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