Bryan Caplan  

Thoughts on the UMich Immigration Debate

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Thoughts on my latest debate:

1. Hans von Spakovsky was the most lawyerly opponent I've ever debated.  His first (and second) approach to almost any issue was simply to describe the law.  In most cases, he didn't even defend its wisdom or justice.  Instead, he simply exhorted people to obey the law or convince Congress to change it.

2. Still, after a great deal of legal description, von Spakovsky finally shared his actual view: low-skilled immigration should be sharply reduced in favor of high-skilled immigration.  When asked about refugees, he refrained from calling for outright cuts in the quota; instead, he maintained that existing numbers are roughly the most we are capable of handling.

3. The debate was explicitly about Trump's views on immigration, and von Spakovsky has pretty close ties to the administration.  But von Spakovsky said almost nothing about Trump or his policies - and studiously failed to defend the president I repeatedly called "intellectually lazy and irrational."  Perhaps he respects Trump so deeply that he considered my claims unworthy of a response.  Or perhaps - like many elite Republicans - he avoided the topic because he is well-aware of Trump's glaring epistemic shortcomings.

4. The most engaging part of the debate, at least for me, began when my opponent spontaneously described his traffic tickets.  This seems to show that - contrary to his grandiose claims about its sanctity - he's often not ashamed to break the law.  In other words, he's an normal American driver.  You could argue that traffic laws are uniquely bad, but that's silly.  They plausibly protect other human beings from dangerous driving - and compliance is usually only a minor inconvenience.  Why, then, would it be wrong to break immigration laws - which immensely harm would-be immigrants at great economic cost to natives?  If anything, we should enforce traffic laws far more strictly than immigration laws.

5. During Q&A, Reason's Shikha Dalmia amplified my point by referencing the slogan that Americans commit three felonies a day.  Von Spakovsky did not dispute her claim, but drew a strong distinction between natives' accidental law-breaking and illegal immigrants' deliberate law-breaking - an odd retreat for such a lawyerly thinker.  When I pointed out that natives often knowingly break the law, my opponent declined to call for a strict crack-down on said scofflaws.

6. I repeatedly pointed out that governments selectively enforce laws all the time.  Indeed, they have no choice; there aren't enough resources in the world to enforce all the laws we have.  Furthermore, governments often officially announce their enforcement policies, so people know what to expect.  Given this, I don't even see what the legal objection to DACA or DAPA is supposed to be.

7. I argued that Trump's travel ban bears little connection to the problems he claims to be worried about.  Saudi Arabia isn't on the list, even though 15 of the 19 9/11 attackers were Saudi.  Von Spakovsky dismissed my claim by by providing details about how the administration formulated its new policy.  He even urged listeners to go to the White House webpage.  This morning, I took his advice.  A typical passage:
The Secretary of Homeland Security assesses that the following countries continue to have "inadequate" identity-management protocols, information-sharing practices, and risk factors, with respect to the baseline described in subsection (c) of this section, such that entry restrictions and limitations are recommended:  Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen.  The Secretary of Homeland Security also assesses that Iraq did not meet the baseline, but that entry restrictions and limitations under a Presidential proclamation are not warranted.
I am perfectly happy to admit that there is a bureaucratic process at work.  There always is.  But if an intellectually lazy, irrational president wants X, are his functionaries going to tell him he's wrong or unfair?  Of course not.  Instead, they'll go through a flurry of procedure to get the "right" answer.  That's how committees work: Busywork + Legalese = Foregone Conclusion.

8. My opponent strongly rejected any keyhole solutions for alleged downsides of low-skilled immigration.  But other than appealing to the value of equality, I detected no concrete objection.

9. I am a weird human being, but I am self-aware.  This routinely leads me to wonder how other people perceive me.  Von Spakovsky was very polite to me both publicly and privately, but he must think there's something very wrong with me.  What exactly would that be?  Partly, I'm an Ivory Tower professor who doesn't understand - or just can't accept - how the "real world" works.  Partly, I'm out of touch with America.  He didn't seem to mistake me for a bog-standard leftist, which was nice.  On reflection, I'm probably far worse in his eyes than he ever realized.  But seeing yourself through the eyes of another is no mean feat.

10. Did either of us change anyone's mind?  I suspect I persuaded a few people to rethink the sanctity of the law.  Von Spakovsky, for his part, might have spurred a few people to read some laws for themselves instead of accepting media summaries of them.  But overall, I'm afraid even the short-run effect on people's thinking was minimal.  Changing minds on this issue is going to require a lot more than a debate.

11. Still, as far as intellectual experiences go, the debate was a far better than a protest




COMMENTS (18 to date)
Hazel Meade writes:

The saying is that it's hard to reason someone out of a position he wasn't reasoned into in the first place.


The conclusion I have come to is that most immigration opponents simply are NOT operating from a reasoned position, but an emotional one. Most of them are actually motivated by one of two reasons:
1. They are working class labor who are threatened by competition from low-skilled immigrants, OR
2. They are nativists who just dislike the cultural change entailed by immigration.

The problem is that 1 is embarrassing to admit to and 2 is socially unacceptable to admit to. So they will disguise opposition to immigration based on 1 and/or 2 with "law is the law" arguments, and event convince themselves that's their real reason. Thus, you can poke as many holes as you want in the "law and order" argument, and it will make no difference, because they didn't arrive at that argument through a rational process.

Alan Goldhammer writes:

von Spakovsky's views are no surprise. His goals are to protect the current elite which is why he takes such views on immigration and voting rights suppression (if I remember correctly, Bryan doesn't vote so maybe he doesn't care about the second of these goals).

I just finished reading Achen and Bartels depressingly fine book, "Democracy for Realists Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government" that highlights why elites tend to stay in power leading to unrepresentative democracy. van Spakovsky wants to insure this continues.

Hazel Meade's points above are right on!!

Mark Bahner writes:
11. Still, as far as intellectual experiences go, the debate was a far better than a protest.

I could easily be wrong on this, but I think a debate is also much more likely to change minds than a protest.

Mark Bahner writes:
2. Still, after a great deal of legal description, von Spakovsky finally shared his actual view: low-skilled immigration should be sharply reduced in favor of high-skilled immigration.

So did you promptly agree with him that we should be dramatically increasing high-skilled immigration?

BC writes:

Adding to Mark Bahner's comments on high skill vs. low skill immigration, I would like to ask von Spakovsky why he favors more high-skilled immigration. Presumably, he would acknowledge that high-skilled immigration adds productive workers to the economy, increases social welfare, etc. Then, I would ask, if the country benefits from more high-skilled immigration, then why wouldn't we allow more high-skilled immigration regardless of low-skilled immigration? If an immigrant doctor can improve patients' health, then why would we deny those patients the benefits of that doctor unless some migrant farm worker is kicked out? It's like saying one wants to sharply reduce low-skilled immigration in favor of cutting the corporate tax rate. The benefits of high-skilled immigration don't depend on low levels of low-skilled immigration.

Tom West writes:

Indeed, I think Hazel is spot on.

Although this has the unpleasant consequence that sometimes if you force logical people to acknowledge an unpleasant truth about themselves, what gets discarded are the sops to compromise that provided them with their emotional cover.

Bedarz Iliachi writes:

Alan Goldhammer
Are you claiming that a majority of voters actually prefer unrestricted immigration or at least more more liberal immigration regime and the elites like von Spakovsky are trying to thwart the popular wish?

Brian writes:

"the president I repeatedly called "intellectually lazy and irrational."

Bryan,

While there is no shortage of things for which to criticize Trump, I'm not sure that an essentially ad hominem attack on him is the best way to go. It's a logical fallacy, last time I looked.

pyroseed13 writes:

I don't really understand this analogy between traffic tickets and immigration laws. Your logic implies that we should not have any laws that we are not willing to enforce 100%. But almost no one thinks we should abolish traffic laws. You seem to view any restriction against immigration as unjust, so why not just against those specific laws rather than arguing against any law in in general?

I'm not sure how many restrictionists would admit this, but I suspect most actually agree with your larger point, that it is sometimes too costly to enforce laws to the fullest. Almost no one thinks that we should go into people's homes, check their papers, and break up their families. It would be too expensive and extremely intrusive. But what about something like E-Verify? That doesn't strike me as particularly costly to enforce, relative to allowing illegal immigration to continue, and the burden it would impose on employers would be fairly small overall.

George writes:

One of the better limited immigration arguments from conservatives is that increasing immigration increases diversity in society which increases distrust as well due to there being more “outsiders”. A lower trust society makes everyone worse off. Therefore we should limit immigration as we trade off against a higher trust society.

ron-paul supporter writes:

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Jeff writes:

I think one reason people prefer high-skilled immigrantion is that they think it raises the average wage, while low-skilled immigration does the opposite. This is true, but since most people aren't very good with statistics, they don't understand that this doesn't mean much.

There is no average worker. If I'm a worker at the 50'th percentile of wages, bringing in a bunch of high-skilled immigrants who get paid more than me isn't going to raise my wage, it's just going to mean that what used to be the 50'th percentile wage is now the 48'th or 49'th percentile wage. The average wage is higher, but there is no individual whose wage has changed, except the new immigrants. Similarly, bringing in low wage immigrants is going to mean my unchanged wage is now 51'st or 52'nd percentile.

There can be a second-order effect if immigration improves efficiency by increasing competition and the size of the market, but that's an argument for more immigration of all kinds.

Jay writes:

I too would find the, basically ad hominem, words against the president unnecessary and detracting from any argument you were trying to make. I'd avoid them in the future.

Mark writes:

While the economic arguments against immigration are as discredited as protectionism and the cultural arguments are too subjective, I think there are two valid (though whether they're sound is open to debate) classes of consequentialist arguments to be made: 1) immigrants being mostly poor, immigration could greatly increase (especially legal immigrants) entitlement eligibility and going forward that fiscal burden could outweigh economic benefits; and 2) political composition: if immigrants tend to support bad policies, then more immigrants means more bad policies.

For 1) optimally loosening of immigration restrictions would be coupled with a reduction in entitlements, and 2) is at least partially a self-fulfilling prophecy: immigrants are probably going to oppose whatever policies/party opposes immigration. But it's probably not entirely that. If, say, conservatives become more pro-immigration, will immigrants become more pro-free market?

Douglas Jones writes:

Bryan, let’s cut to the chase. The only immigration that is of real concern in Europe just now is Muslim, particularly since Merkel’s unilateral decision to suspend border controls in 2015. You may be aware that there have been many jihadist attacks that have taken place across Europe in the last few years. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan (in)famously stated that these were just part and parcel of life in a major city (even though such incidents have occurred in small towns as well).

After the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, British authorities and MI5 revealed they had 500 ongoing investigations into 3,000 jihadist extremists as potential terrorist attackers, with a further 20,000 having been "subjects of interest" in the past, including the Manchester and Westminster attackers.[14]
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_terrorism_in_Europe_(2014–present)

Price worth paying, in your view?

Mark Bahner writes:
I think one reason people prefer high-skilled immigration is that they think it raises the average wage, while low-skilled immigration does the opposite. This is true, but since most people aren't very good with statistics, they don't understand that this doesn't mean much.

I think it's more a matter of: 1) High-skilled immigrants are less likely to need social services like Medicaid and SNAP, 2) High-skilled immigrants are likely to contribute more per-capita to the economy, because their wages are likely to be higher, 3) High-skilled immigrants (and their families) are less likely to get involved to get in criminal activities, since they have skills that can earn comfortable livings, and don't want to risk that, and so on.

Douglas Jones writes:

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Weir writes:

Is "the sanctity of law" all that well-loved? I think you're pushing on an open door.

How many pedantic, lawyerly stick-in-the-muds are there, really? I thought voters liked the idea of a phone and a pen? They like the man on horseback, and energy in the executive, and bold, decisive action, and a president who "cares about people like me."

A lawyerly stick-in-the-mud will keep getting hung up on that weird idea of a system under which bad men can do least harm, and the boring process of legally changing the legal rules. But that's what makes the lawyer the weird one. Where do most people put their emphasis? On the intellectual capacities of an individual man.

The bog-standard voter is going to cross his fingers for an intellectually strenuous president, an intellectually sweaty president who really works hard, intellectually, to end up in the same position as him. That's the Jiminy Cricket philosophy of law: "Let your conscience be your guide."

Jiminy Cricket says to the president, "Let your conscience be your guide." And, fingers crossed, the president just does the right thing, skipping over all those boring constitutional niceties and all those endless lines of text on page after page of old law books.

Hans von Spakovsky, unlike Jiminy Cricket, argues that the legal text should be rewritten legally, so as to bring in more high-skilled immigrants. Which doesn't interest Jiminy Cricket.

Democracy itself is a kind of compromise, after all. It's the idea that different people are all in the same boat, needing to reach some kind of modus vivendi with each other in a community, finding a way to live together even though they don't all agree about everything. Which doesn't interest Jiminy Cricket. Elections are stupid, and written constitutions are stupid too, and the president should simply and decisively do what's right, and pick up his phone and pen. Problem solved.

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