Bryan Caplan  

Xenophobia and Canada

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Are Americans racist and xenophobic?  As usual, two package deals angrily competing for our attention.  The first says: Americans are obviously racist and xenophobic.  The second says: No, you're just being paranoid. 

Neither package deal sees America clearly.  For racism, Avenue Q has it right: while (almost) everyone's a little bit racist, the key word is "little."  How little?  In the United States in recent decades, race has minimal effect on earnings once you correct for obvious measures of worker productivity - and minimal effect on incarceration once you correct for obvious measures of law-breaking.  While these aren't the only possible metrics of racism, they are the main ones people get angry about.  And there's not much there.

Xenophobia, in stark contrast, is rampant.  With apologies to Johnny Carson, let me put it this way...

How xenophobic are Americans?

[dramatic pause]

Americans are so xenophobic, they don't even favor open borders with Canada.

Think about all the popular arguments against immigration.  Immigrants hurt low-skilled Americans.  Immigrants abuse the welfare state.  Immigrants commit crimes.  Immigrants don't learn English.  Immigrants refuse to culturally assimilate.  Immigrants vote for Sharia. 

Now ask yourself: How do any of these arguments even remotely apply to Canadians?  But the sound of crickets changes nothing.  If a Canadian asks to live and work in the U.S., America's default answer remains: No.

Historically, yes, opposition to immigration was closely tied to racial and ethnic bigotry: first against Asians, then against Southern and Eastern Europeans.  And anger about immigration continues to be racially enhanced: Americans gripe far more about an illegal Hispanic immigrant from the South than an illegal white immigrant from the North. 

Still, when xenophobia conflicts with racism, it is xenophobia that prevails.  U.S. law genuinely grants citizens, regardless of race, the basic human rights to live and work anywhere they choose - and denies these basic human rights to everyone else on Earth - even if they're the spitting image of Ozzie and Harriet.  We bitterly joke about DWB - the de facto "crime" of Driving While Black.  But WWF - Working While Foreign - is literally illegal... unless, of course, the U.S. government feels like making an exception.  And even if you're Canadian, the U.S. government rarely feels like making an exception.

This doesn't mean, of course, that Americans spend much time decrying Canadians, or even thinking about them.  But if you broach the subject, Americans' xenophobia is plain as day.  Why not let Canadians live and work here?  Well, why should we?  What's wrong with Canada?  Why can't Canadians just stay there?  A fellow human being from Canada wants to rent a U.S. home from a willing landlord and accept a U.S. job offer from a willing employer - and Americans favor prohibition for no identifiable reason whatsoever.  If that's not xenophobia, what is?

But aren't people in every country - Canada included - similarly unreasonable and unfair?  Sure.  Xenophobia - not racism - is the unrepentant bigotry that rules the world.  People in every country on Earth take it for granted.  But as we teach our children, "Everyone else is doing it" is no excuse for bad behavior.  Almost everyone is is extremely xenophobic.  And everyone should stop.  Starting with you.




COMMENTS (35 to date)
Brian Mason writes:

well said

Dan Hill writes:

I've been saying for years that if the objections usually given against immigration we're the actual reasons, we'd have free immigration between the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc. I'm pretty sure i've actually said this in the comments on your previous posts on immigration - without the clever line about xenophobia and Canadians.

On the flip side, as an Aussie living in the US for over a decade, I've never had anyone ever question my right to be here, not even a sideways glance. Somehow if my skin were darker and my name different, I doubt I'd be able to say that. But I think that's still xenophobia, not racism. It's about being different. I'm different enough that the US wouldn't allow me in unless I married an American, but the same enough that Americans accepted me immediately as 'one of them.'

It would be interesting to ask those opposed to free immigration with Canada what they think would happen if we implemented such a policy. Like, what bad thing would they actually expect to happen?

MikeP writes:

I have to strongly disagree. The root problem here is not xenophobia: it's protectionism.

Americans -- and most economically ill-informed people -- will find any excuse whatsoever to limit the pool of people who compete against them for "their" jobs. Borders regulated to limit economic migration do exactly that.

There does not have to be any phobia or other analogue to racism at all. The purveyors of restrictive immigration law consider themselves morally blameless: they feel they are only protecting their fellow citizens from unfair competition. We need to tell these people that they may not feel like they are doing wrong, but they are actually committing a massive abrogation of individual rights by prohibiting tens of millions of people from living better lives for no good reason save that they think they legitimately can.

AS writes:

Dan, you are contrasting xenophobia by individuals vs govt. Govt, not individuals, is the greatest perpetrator of xenophobia, and racism. And for some reason when people enter the voting booth they are far more likely to express these hateful and ignorant preferences. Collective action is often irrational which is why democracy is doomed.

Dangerman writes:

There's a second order problem though... yes, Canada is full of white people that our racist white people should be able to trust.

But having an open border means having to trust not only the *current* inhabitants (as white as they may be) but also the *future* inhabitants of Canada per Canada's open borders.

Jesse C writes:

You obviously don't watch South Park, as the show makes it pretty clear that Canadians are physically different from Americans. (They have beady eyes and flapping heads)

Ben H. writes:

Bryan, I agree with your stance regarding xenophobia. Your stance regarding racism, on the other hand, is wildly inaccurate and sounds stunningly tone-deaf in today's political climate. Your own link regarding incarceration concludes "There seems to be a strong racial bias in capital punishment and a moderate racial bias in sentence length and decision to jail," and "It would be nice to say that this shows the criminal justice system is not disproportionately harming blacks, but unfortunately it doesn’t come anywhere close to showing anything of the sort." You seem to completely gloss over all of that with a breezy "While these aren't the only possible metrics of racism, they are the main ones people get angry about." Um, no. People get angry about all sorts of aspects of racism nowadays, and with good cause. You need to get out of your bubble more.

john hare writes:

One of the aspects of racism that angers me is the expectation that I'm supposed to feel guilt about being white. White/black racism is worse now than it was 8 years ago as far as I can tell locally.

I'll go with Mikes' answer on protectionism being far more a factor than xenophobia.

Shane Leavy writes:

I think Dangerman's point is important. If the US had open borders with Canada and Canada chose to open borders with the rest of the world, this could be a challenge to American borders. This may have been a factor in Brexit: British people were concerned by the wave of refugees fleeing Syria and accepted into the EU by other countries.

pyroseed13 writes:

There is nothing "xenophobic" about wanting to have an immigration policy that is in the interest of Americans. Do you really think that tarring all opponents of increased immigration with this label really helps your cause?

psmith writes:

You know what they say about one man's modus ponens....

Thaomas writes:

Good point about immigration, but what you say about "racism" strikes me as odd. As I see it, racism, the little bit that "everyone" has works at multiple stages including across generations. Measuring it at any one stage -- concentration, for example -- and finding that racism does not affect it one a lot of other factors (which may also be affected by racism) seems to rather miss the point.

As for immigration from Canada the "arguments" against open borders still make sense to xenophobes if "terrorists" or whatever undesirable group xenophobes are phobic about can get through the Canadian border.

Floccina writes:
Why can't Canadians just stay there?


Well duh, because it's crazy cold up there.

BTW I have know some Floridans to speak badly about the Canadian tourists.

Floccina writes:

I would change MikeP's

they feel they are only protecting their fellow citizens from unfair competition

To

they feel they are only protecting their fellow citizens from competition

Most people do not see it as unfair.

Thinking about what pyroseed13 said, xenophobia is not a good word for what they are, more like discriminatory. They do not fear Canadians but think they and their fellow citizens gain from us all standing together and discriminating against them.

Mark Brophy writes:

As evil as the United State government is, Canada is even worse, as a Canadian diesel engine mechanic with a wrist injury explained to me at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. The Canadian government bounced him around their medical system for 4 years before allowing him to receive treatment in Minnesota. In the meantime, his government insurance didn't give him any income to survive on and he remained alive only because his employer, a bus company, gave him a job washing buses at minimum wage, a 50% pay cut, in contrast to insurance in the United States that covers 100% loss of income.

Calling NAFTA a "free trade" treaty is a sick joke. Software engineers in Vancouver earn 50% of the salaries of their counterparts in Seattle 120 miles away, thanks to politicians in Washington 3000 miles away, forcing Microsoft to open Vancouver offices rather than hiring Canadians to work and live in Seattle.

How did voters react to this deplorable situation? They elected a President who thinks we suffer from too much foreign trade and neither he nor his most popular opponent ever said a single word about increasing trade with Canada. Neither Trump nor Clinton said very much about any public policies, preferring to expend most of their energy attacking the other candidate, and voters rewarded them with 95% of the vote, ignoring several much better candidates. The new boss is the same as the old boss.

The only solution is to decentralize by splitting the United States into 10-20 new countries but voters don't even agitate for independence of California and Texas.

Benjamin R Kennedy writes:

I think you are making a good case why you shouldn't be using the term "xenophobia". If it is true that Americans are not literally afraid afraid of Canadians, then you need a better word to describe their position, one that is rooted in reality. For the same reason, it is inaccurate to call an open-borders advocate a 'xenophile'

hueshi writes:

As I see it, the problem is that Americans (and, well, just about everyone else) are locked into a sort of national mutual-aggression pact that makes the question of who enters the country very much the concern of the citizens of the country.

First of all, there is the question of voting, other influence over the government and jus soli citizenship. The US government has tremendous power over the lives of residents of the US. If the people who are currently in the country feel that immigrants, or their children, will begin to strongly influence the government to act in ways contrary to their liberties, then understandably they are concerned. Naturally, the correct approach is to reduce the power of government - but that has to come first. For example, what would Bryan think if migrants from Canada began moving en masse to his bucolic town and demanding that the local government began, say, requiring French education in every school and banning that sacrilegious pseudo-syrup known as "Aunt Jemima's". He might plead with these zealous Canuckistanis not to make toques and flannel shirts mandatory garments for everybody, but it would be too late, since the power of the government to demand these sorts of things had not been first curtailed.

Secondly, while it is true that on average, immigrants, even those in the country illegally, do not unusually generally burden the welfare system, the redistributive state is much larger than this. It's in all the public infrastructure (roads, water, fire services and many more things). Having built and maintained these things with tax money, it is very difficult to convince people that they need to allow lots of new people to use them - especially when, as with things like schools, one must share them at the same time, often in a very intimate way. (You know how those Canucks tear up the roads with their dog sleds and get their sticky fingers all over the library books.) The zero-sum mentality is strongly encouraged by the fact that the contributions to public services are mandatory, but to chalk up an unwillingness to share these things to just xenophobia is, I think, missing the main reason. The wealthiest people can, in the US, generally insulate themselves by being able to afford private versions of these goods, but many people cannot.

Thirdly is the question of individual association - it's a legal principle that many people in the US cannot refuse to do business or associate with others for a wide range of criteria. One of these criteria is often nationality/ethnicity. But what if the migrants from a particular nation tend to have values or attitudes that conflict with those generally held locally? You can't just dissassociate from them, you must interact. And if that means you have to deal with boisterous Canadians intimidating your customers and sarcastically apologizing to you all the time, you can't tell them to go away without getting in serious trouble.

So it's not as simple as just letting in whoever wants to come, because the rest of the system gives "whoever is in" significant power of their fellows' lives. Order of operations matters. It's like government has created a cartel of producers (which destroys competitive pricing), but then instituted price controls (to keep those rentier profits down). If you eliminate the cartel first, then competition will return and you can later remove the price controls. But if you remove the price controls without eliminating the cartel, then prices will shoot up and benefit only the cartel.

MikeDC writes:

@MikeP

We need to tell these people that they may not feel like they are doing wrong, but they are actually committing a massive abrogation of individual rights by prohibiting tens of millions of people from living better lives for no good reason save that they think they legitimately can.

Those people would respond, though, by saying that not only do they owe a duty to their fellow citizens, it's hard to talk about "individual rights" at all without mutual agreement and protection of rights and property.

At a basic level, a (free) government is one that operationalizes our property rights. It establishes what rights we recognize in each other. It's a contract, and thus as we become citizens, through birth or naturalization, we inherit or agree to the terms of the contract.

Non-citizens, by virtue of not being party to the basic agreement, have to be treated differently because they're not subject to the entirety of the agreement. And... they're subject to other agreements that we're not.

That doesn't mean, of course, that we shouldn't let people easily naturalize. We should. But it's putting the cart before the horse to say we're abrogating rights, because rights only exist (outside of some sort of abstract moral concept) insofar as they're established by the mutual agreement establishing and legitimating the government.

A writes:

It's possible that you are understating racism by adjusting for the things that should be assessed. For example, a major study found no evidence of excess police violence given an encounter, but many studies have noticed increased police encounters for with black men. And certain policies, like the war on drugs, may be uniformly executed while disproportionately affecting a specific race. While differential racial outcomes are not obvious evidence of racism, decades long perpetuation of such policies raises eyebrows.

MikeP writes:

...rights only exist (outside of some sort of abstract moral concept) insofar as they're established by the mutual agreement establishing and legitimating the government.

Fortunately for us, part of the mutual agreement establishing and legitimating the United States explicitly affirms that individual rights precede and supersede any government.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...
Andrew_FL writes:

Notice that if we did establish Open Borders with Canada, the argument above would be totally reversed: Americans are racist, why do they let foreigners come and work and vote here from Canada but not Mexico?

Kitty_T writes:

I recently read a good short piece somewhere (where? random twitter link I think?) that part of the immigration debate disconnect is that there are 2 distinct schools of thought, and they talk past each other.

First school is free movement as individual right, which, as with all individual rights, you need a DARN GOOD REASON to limit. Obviously this is Prof. Caplan's school.

Second school is the nation state as home of its current residents. They have the right to invite anyone into their home, or exclude anyone they don't feel is congenial, and it's criminal to enter someone's home without their consent. This describes almost all current legal regimes.

The first step to having an actual discussion is to acknowledge both sides' first principles & address their respective costs & benefits. Few seem to do this.

Thaomas writes:

@ john hare

There is no expectation that you feel guilt about being white. If you feel that way, get professional help.

MikeDC writes:
Fortunately for us, part of the mutual agreement establishing and legitimating the United States explicitly affirms that individual rights precede and supersede any government.

In exactly the same way you could say the same statement explicitly affirms a State Religion. Or affirms racial equality. Or a right to freely provisioned state-paid health care.

That is, in no way.

If it's your interpretation that "liberty" means free immigration but doesn't include, say, a comprehensive welfare state, that's nice, but it's a matter of continual interpretation.

To the extent you think those rights supersede government, you are free, of course, to rebel as the Founding Fathers did, and wage war upon their existing government.

But if you think that's going a bit too far, it's quite a bit more reasonable to accept the mix of rights that we agree upon through government.

And there, it's my opinion that extreme open-borders libertarians are being ridiculous to advocate packaging "open borders immigration" with the other political rights (the modern welfare state) our society has more recently agreed upon. When you/they point to the historical concept of free immigration, you simply minimize or ignore outright the fact that it never existed in concert with modern conceptions of most every other right. And that there are obvious conflicts between them.

I mean, hey, I'd gladly make a trade in which we "get" more open borders and "give up" more of the welfare state.

But, for a lot of Americans, that's basically a lose-lose proposition. Even though I disagree with it, for them more open borders represents a real harm and the welfare state represents some level of necessity.

I don't think much progress can be made on the former until the latter has been more successfully dealt with.

MikeP writes:

If it's your interpretation that "liberty" means free immigration but doesn't include, say, a comprehensive welfare state, that's nice, but it's a matter of continual interpretation.

The words "unalienable rights" meant something to the Founders, and that something did not include welfare. If you want to forfeit the critical concept of natural rights to your political opponents, you are free to do so. I choose not to.

I mean, hey, I'd gladly make a trade in which we "get" more open borders and "give up" more of the welfare state.

Indeed, whenever I propose a solution to immigration problems, it generally looks very much like this.

Regardless, my sole point was to disagree with the assertion that xenophobia is behind immigration law. It's not. But neither is immigration law based on concerns over the welfare state. It's not.

MikeDC writes:
Regardless, my sole point was to disagree with the assertion that xenophobia is behind immigration law. It's not. But neither is immigration law based on concerns over the welfare state. It's not.

Like any political subject, it's quite likely that the law is supported by "all of the above". Some people are xenophobic. Some people oppose it on purely economic (protectionist) grounds. And others oppose it on the basis of the welfare state's existence.

Likewise, I'm quite wary of siding with the folks whose support for immigration appears conditional upon determination that it supports their agenda for a giant, bureaucratic state. That's an argument to not give to one's opponents.

We have a substantial body of public choice research now, and it overwhelmingly reports that in order to be able to trade at the margins, you can't simply give your positions away.

Jesse C writes:

I generally agree with open borders, particularly in terms of freedom, anti-xenophobia, free movement of labor, etc. I'd be emphatically pro-immigration if I didn't expect bad political shift that would threaten my freedom. I'd like people to check any socialist tendencies at the border for selfish reasons. I've read the arguments against my fears, but I remain unconvinced.

I'm curious why middle America is characterized as so bigoted and racist when it comes to immigration. Does Canada have a significantly laxer immigration policy? Mexico? Central/South American countries? I thought they were all roughly as strict as the US - making Americans only just as xenophobic as the rest of the hemisphere.

Is anyone here making the case that Europe's recent immigrant experience has been overwhelmingly good? At least, has the only bad thing been from racist Europeans?

Kgaard writes:

Bryan ... Someone told me you wrote a piece criticizing Israel for having literal walls up to impede immigration of non-Israelis into the country. Would you have the link for that?

I agree that open borders is the only moral stance for developed countries in all parts of the world. Wealthy countries should share their resources and social capital with the less fortunate.

john hare writes:

Thaomas writes:
@ john hare

There is no expectation that you feel guilt about being white. If you feel that way, get professional help.

There are constant sound bites and expectations that it's all the white mans' fault from some quarters. I don't buy into it and some suggest I'm insensitive. I'll take insensitive over being manipulated.

Jameson Graber writes:

I think there's a bad equilibrium here. If we changed our policy to have open borders with Canada but not with Mexico, then we'd lose the right to say our policy isn't racist. But if we changed our policy to open our borders with both countries (or everyone), we'd upset everyone who has concerns about culture, low wages, etc.

Ben writes:

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

john hare writes:

@Ben
I'm not sure if your comment was directed at me, but if it was.... In my area there is some white privilege visible. Many companies will hire whites by preference because a lousy white worker can be fired without accusations of racism.

From what I can see locally, black workers have lost some ground over the last few decades as they have been told that it is our (white) fault. There used to be a lot of black construction people and crews around here with skill and pride that could compete against the best. Right now, I can think of one.

When an entire race is constantly told that it is someone else that is the cause of their problems, many of that race seem to quit trying. Locally. the Mexican immigrant work force is better paid and more respected than the blacks and most white workers. That is performance based.

Up The Irons writes:

This is a very dishonest argument in my opinion. You are conflating xenophobia with policy preferences. Many restrictionists at least claim to be xenophiles: https://twitter.com/EricRWeinstein/status/791071702432096256

I'll bet if Canada was the only other country in the world, we'd have something like open borders. But having open borders with Canada and not Mexico would get us called racist.

There's no winning with people on the left.

Maximum Liberty writes:

Pshaw. There are obvious reasons to keep Canadians out.

First off, some of them are from Quebec. That would be as bad as letting the French in! 'nuff said 'bout that. (P.S. We should kick the cajuns back out of Louisiana.)

Second, they are sneaky. You talk to them and they sound all reasonable-like. Easy to get along with. Some of their beer is tolerable. And so on. They you see them at a hockey game. The mask is off -- they are all insane! We can't let those nuts in here. (P.S. There is no comparison to football to be made. Beating the crap out of your next door neighbor because he's a Steeler fan is entirely OK.)

Now, look, I know they kind of deserve our pity for having to live up where that white stuff supposedly falls from the sky. But we're working on that. Global warming will fix that for them in just a few hundred years. They'll be fine until then.

Conor writes:

This is from slatstarcodex

And creates this (to my mind excellent) analogy about views on immigration.


In one model, immigration is a right. You need a very strong reason to take it away from anybody, and such decisions should be carefully inspected to make sure no one is losing the right unfairly. It’s like a store: everyone should be allowed to come in and shop and if a manager refused someone entry then they better have a darned good reason.
In another, immigration is a privilege which members of a community extend at their pleasure to other people whom they think would be a good fit for their community. It’s like a home: you can invite your friends to come live with you, but if someone gives you a vague bad feeling or seems like a good person who’s just incompatible with your current lifestyle, you have the right not to invite them and it would be criminal for them to barge in anyway.


Personally I'd describe myself as in favor of immigration but I'd still hew more to the first view then the second.

[Miscoded link HTML fixed--Econlib Ed.]

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