Bryan Caplan  

Borjas, Ideology, and #ForeignLivesMatter

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Shikha Dalmia and George Borjas' immigration debate in Reason manages to be intriguing and aggravating at the same time.  For me, the highlights are when Borjas leaves technical economics and lays his ideological cards on the table.  Borjas is in blockquotes, I'm not.

My research was never motivated or influenced by what I thought about individual liberty or the rights of people to live anywhere they want. My personal experience with Communist indoctrination when I was 10 and 11 years old left me very wary of thinking about anything in ideological terms.

Most victims of Communism, in my experience, take away lessons like, "Human rights matters," "Government should respect individual liberty," "The fact that government does something doesn't make it right," "Forbidding emigration is monstrous," or just "Socialism is evil."  Borjas, in contrast, takes away the lesson that "Ideology is bad."  Which is simply bizarre.  Castro ruined Borjas' native Cuba because his ideology was totalitarian.  If Castro's ideology had been pro-market and pro-freedom, Cuba would be a great place today - and Borjas might be at the University of Havana writing books to keep immigrants out of Cuba instead.

In any case, you can't not have an ideology.  Borjas finally reveals his in his closing sentence:
When push comes to shove, I will side with policies that improve the well-being of the American worker.
This is no less "ideological" than siding with policies with improve the well-being of whites, women, Germans, or the international proletariat.  And like all of these ideologies, Borjas' is subject to devastating counter-examples.  Like: Suppose enslaving the whole population of Cuba would improve the well-being of the American worker.  When "push comes to shove," would you favor that?

I'm confident that Borjas, a self-styled pragmatist, would reply, "Of course not.  Yes, #ForeignLivesMatter somewhat."  But this concession/hashtag has a life of its own.  Borjas has long claimed that existing immigration greatly helps foreigners with roughly zero net effect on Americans.  So if he grants that #ForeignLivesMatter, he should enthusiastically bless the immigration that's already occurred.  And while his pragmatism would restrain him from endorsing anything like open borders, Borjas has every reason to advocate gradual deregulation of migration until American workers seriously start hurting.




COMMENTS (18 to date)
GregS writes:

Thanks for this. I had just read Borjas’ blog post which you link to and the Reason piece, and I noticed the same contradiction.

“[Y]ou can't not have an ideology.” My thoughts exactly. It’s important to separate the normative from the positive, but if I read him literally Borjas is taking this way too far.

pyroseed13 writes:

I agree with the claim it is impossible to not have an ideology. Anyone who claims to just dispassionately assess the evidence is being less than honest, because most assessments of evidence are going to involve some kind of normative judgment, at least when it's related to public policy.

But yet, I could pretty much say the same about open borders proponents. Many of them, including yourself and Dalmia, subscribe to a belief in "mobility rights." If we are supposed to discount Borjas because of his ideology, then shouldn't we discount anything you have to say on this issue?

Andrew_FL writes:

Not letting people vote in your elections is morally equivalent to having police murder them.

Mark Brophy writes:

One can emigrate to Mexico without acquiring the privilege of voting. We should follow their example. We can define rights and privileges any way we please.

Effem writes:

"...until American workers are hurting"

And how exactly do we define that? Do we set up some task force to tell people when they are hurting or not? Seems to me that once a population stands up, says they are hurting, and votes to change the things that are hurting them...they are in fact hurting. I'm guessing you would simply tell them they are wrong...I don't love that strategy.

If you believe (as I do), that relative status is more important to human utility than absolute standard of living then you can have a very unhappy segment of the population even with flat income.

MikeP writes:

If we are supposed to discount Borjas because of his ideology, then shouldn't we discount anything you have to say on this issue?

We are supposed to discount Borjas because he claims to be not ideological, but he is ideological.

MikeP writes:

Not letting people vote in your elections is morally equivalent to having police murder them.

No. Just as not letting people be naturalized is not morally equivalent to prohibiting their travel, residence, or employment.

Travel, residence, employment, and not being murdered are rights. Naturalization and voting are not.

Andrew_FL writes:

@MikeP-Voting is a right in America. But thank you for explaining you're just in favor of an Apartheid state where people can come in but they can't vote.

MikeP writes:

When I say right, I mean unalienable individual natural right endowed equally upon all people. Voting clearly is not one of those.

But, yes, I prefer permitting second-class residents in the US to keeping them fifth-class residents elsewhere by force.

Andrew_FL writes:

If you like your Republic, you can keep your Republic. If you like your property rights, you can keep your property rights. If you like your Apartheid state, you can keep your Apartheid state.

Hahahahahaha.

shecky writes:

I'm always confused by the reasoning says it's unfair to restrict immigrants unless they're granted full rights as citizens. As if it's an act of mercy to restrict someone's migration because they wouldn't be able to do things that citizens can do, like vote or be summoned for jury duty. Even if they may have no interest in doing those things and are OK with it.

Somehow, I have a hard time believing people who argue along this line are actually concerned about migrants, or their rights.

MikeP writes:

To be clear, my proposal generally allows for granting citizenship after 18 or 20 years and certainly grants citizenship to born children of immigrants. The difference between that and Apartheid is far, far greater than the difference between that and the legal status of immigrants in the US today.

But if you want to laugh, you may as well see all the points:

1) Issue a new unlimited visa that allows indefinite entry, exit, residence, and employment for anyone who passes a background check that they are not terrorists, foreign agents, violent felons, or public health risks.

2) Holders of this visa have no claims to any path to citizenship, though they can apply for other, citizenship-track visas while they hold the unlimited residence visa.

3) No immigrants get any targeted welfare.

4) Citizen children of immigrants are on the welfare schedule of their parents.

5) "Amnesty" means applying for and receiving this visa.

MikeDC writes:

Has Caplan or any of the rest of you open borders fanatics accepted even one single impoverished foreigner from into his or her home? I mean, it would seriously start to hurt if he let in, but he and his family are relatively wealthy and surely have a place much larger than they need.

Wouldn't the materiel benefit to that one person be worth it?

So why not just one?

Andrew_FL writes:

I'm laughing because that's not how it works. You want 1 you're not going to get 2 or 3. We don't live in a world where you are dictator, we live in a world where the United States is a Democratic Republic and you are never going to be allowed to get away with denying people citizenship.

Enjoy socialism.

Gene Callahan writes:

Somebody doesn't understand the word "ideological," and I think his name starts with Bryan Caplan.

Or GregS: “[Y]ou can't not have an ideology.”

That's like saying "It's impossible not to have an obsessive-compulsive disorder."

It's the kind of thing people in love with their obsessive-compulsive disorder are likely to say.

MikeP writes:

...you're not going to get 2...

There are 11 million new nonimmigrant visas issued per year. Most are for a period of months, but others go up to 6 years. Is indefinite that big of a leap from there?

...or 3.

The 1996 welfare reform act is on the phone. It wants to talk with you.

...you are never going to be allowed to get away with denying people citizenship.

The US denies tens of millions of people citizenship every year. Indeed, they go far beyond that and deny them the permission to reside in or be employed in the US as well. Why, there are even rumors of 11 million illegal aliens in the US right now!

Back to your Apartheid claim, what would you say is the net present value of US citizenship to a 22 year old? One itemization may look as follows:

Being able to reside and workin the US: $390,000
Being able to serve in elected office: $10,000
Being able to vote: $1,000
Being able to serve on a jury: -$1,000

Total: $400,000

Is not being able to vote for an extended time, or even for the rest of your life, really that bad? Would you turn my numbers upside down? Or because you don't want to grant someone an $10,000 benefit of citizenship, are you really willing to deny them the $390,000 in noncitizenship value of living in the US?

Ben A writes:

Here are Borjas' final two paragraphs:

The evidence summarized in We Wanted Workers suggests that it is quite possible that the "efficiency gains" that receive so much emphasis in the libertarian narrative are totally offset by the costs associated with welfare expenditures or harmful productivity spillovers. As I said, it may well be that "immigration is just another government redistribution program." My italicization of "just" was not a random click on my track pad. It was meant to drive home the point that there is a good chance that all that immigration does is redistribute wealth.

If there are no efficiency gains to be had, then espousing any specific immigration policy is nothing but a declaration that group x is preferred to group y. It is easy to avoid clarifying who you are rooting for by trying to reframe the debate in terms of amorphous philosophical ideals about mobility rights and the like. But this is where we go our separate ways. When push comes to shove, I will side with policies that improve the well-being of the American worker.


Note that Borjas' statement "I will side with policies that improve the well-being of the American worker" ends a paragraph that begins "If there are no efficiency gains to be had" and comes in the context of an extensive argument that immigration may be net-neutral on efficiency -- "just another government redistribution program."

So when Caplan speaks of counter examples like "enslaving the entire Cuban population" it's a complete non-sequitor. It's going to be very hard to have an honest debate if one side can't even fairly summarize the other party's arguments.

Wallace Forman writes:

@Ben A

"It's going to be very hard to have an honest debate if one side can't even fairly summarize the other party's arguments." (Your words)

Does Borjas's statement read as a fair summary of Caplan, Dalmia, et al.? To wit:

"If there are no efficiency gains to be had, then espousing any specific immigration policy is nothing but a declaration that group x is preferred to group y. It is easy to avoid clarifying who you are rooting for by trying to reframe the debate in terms of amorphous philosophical ideals about mobility rights and the like." (Borjas's words)

Borjas's reading of the open borders position seems insincere. I would guess that Dalmia and Caplan think of their position as the neutral, impartial one, in contrast to protectionism which is clearly designed to benefit natives. Color me dubious that Dalmia or Caplan would change their position if open borders stopped being net beneficial to foreigners only.

Come to think of it, is Borjas fairly summarizing his own argument? Scanning the piece again, it seems his position is that immigration is net neutral *for Americans* - not that it is net neutral, full stop. (Do correct me if I'm wrong.)

http://cis.org/node/4573

How strange, then, that Borjas repeatedly insists on highlighting the partial figure. Bryan's excerpt, though a fair quotation, may be just seizing upon poor phrasing by Borjas. Or perhaps it is the proper Struassian reading. As Dalmia notes, "'Preconceived notions of how the world works' inevitably seep into one's work."

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