How persuasive are open borders advocates? The case of Bryan Caplan
October 23, 2012 25 Comments
Post by Vipul Naik (regular blogger and site founder, launched site and started blogging March 2012). See:
To make any comment about the extent to which resources should be devoted to open borders advocacy, and the way the resources should be allocated, one must have at least some idea of how effective various forms of open borders advocacy are. One of the most admirable proponents of open borders is Bryan Caplan. Caplan has called open borders the most important issue of our time (here and here) and his writings are linked to and quoted all over this website. But just how effective is he? How many minds has he changed? How many hearts has he won to the cause of open borders? I emailed Caplan, asking him to post this question as a bleg to his commenters, a group that includes both a number of passionate pro-open borders people (like John Lee, whom I recruited to the Open Borders blog after discovering him in the EconLog comments) and some of the most articulate restrictionists of open borders, as Nathan has pointed out.
Caplan was kind enough to do an Open Borders Persuasion Bleg, and Nathan has since written a blog post responding to some of Caplan’s critics. My focus here is not to respond to the critiques of Caplan (a job that Nathan has already done, with the exception of taking on Ghost of Christmas Past). Rather, my goal is to do a quick quantitative and qualitative analysis of the comments, and then to use these to pontificate on the future direction and focus of open borders advocacy.
Quantitatively measured conclusions: some evidence of effectiveness
I have a quick summary of the responses here. For each commenter, I tried to identify the commenter’s stance on open borders pre-Caplan and post-Caplan. For commenters where the stance was unclear, I selected all possibilities that were consistent with the comment. Here’s what I took away from the analysis:
- About half the commenters (46/90 in my count) were influenced toward more open borders. 10/90 were influenced toward more closed borders, and the rest were either unaffected or their comments did not make it clear how they were affected. Note that my count of unaffected people includes people who were already so pro-open borders that their conviction couldn’t be strengthened further.
- The overall mix of commenters’ positions pre-Caplan and post-Caplan has changed to some extent to the pro-open borders position. Support for closed borders (i.e., more closed borders than the status quo) decreased, and support for radical open borders increased. There was a shift all along the chain from closed borders to the status quo to moderately more open borders to radically more open borders. The most dramatic shift, though, was the shift from moderately more open borders to radically more open borders. Caplan seems to be most convincing in this group.
- About 60% of the commenters (54/90 in my count) said, directly or indirectly, that Caplan had persuaded them about the importance of the issue. This includes some people who were already so radically pro-open borders that they couldn’t move further in that direction — Caplan influenced these people to attach a greater priority to open borders. It also includes people who aren’t completely convinced by Caplan, but think that this issue is important and deserves more attention, and appreciate Caplan’s efforts to address the issue.
- There were a bunch of people (16/90 in my count) who said that Caplan had successfully addressed some, but not all, of their concerns about open borders.
- Among the specific points where commenters considered Caplan unconvincing, political externalities was the most significant. Other issues raised by the commenters included IQ deficit, dysfunctional immigrant culture, and the welfare state/fiscal burden objection. Unsurprisingly for an economically literate group of commenters, the suppression of wages of natives issue was raised by almost no commenter.
Qualitative nature of complaints
The gist of the qualitative pushback that Caplan received from commenters was that he didn’t take restrictionist concerns seriously enough for them to be convinced that his advocacy of open borders had adequately taken these objections into account. Now, prima facie, this objection seems weird, because Caplan has spent more time than almost any other open borders advocate I know trying to address restrictionist arguments such as IQ deficit and political externalities (though I hope that the coverage of these topics on the Open Borders blog will soon outstrip Caplan’s coverage). He has been willing to consider keyhole solutions as an alternative to closed borders. Yet, commenters are not satisfied with Caplan’s efforts. For instance, C:
However, your arguments have time and time again ignored the obvious strong points restrictionists raise (ie., low IQ, low skill immigration is not the same or as valuable as high IQ immigration with most illegals especially a net drain on the taxpayer; the 1890s were a far different economy than our present-day stagnant economy which is already facing rising inequality; raising standards in other nations is just as (or more) beneficial as open borders; no nation state has ever survived an open borders or high immigration society; diversity weakens institutions (some of them, etc.).
None. Mostly because you don’t engage the best counterarguments that are usually here in your comments section and are usually based on the low quality of immigrants — e.g., low IQ, high crime in the long-term, vote left, use public services at a high rate, the extremely poor academic achievement going back 4-5 generations of Mexican immigrants, the increase cultural and political balkanization, etc — and the long-term effects of increasing them as a % of the population and the negative spillover effects.
The most cynical explanation is that when somebody says that Caplan isn’t taking restrictionist arguments seriously, what they really mean is that Caplan isn’t wholeheartedly agreeing with restrictionist conclusions. However, that does not fit the actual comments, because many fence-sitters also write that Caplan is decidedly unpersuasive or anti-persuasive.
I think the commenters’ objections stem from a number of reasons:
- Often, when Caplan considers a restrictionist concern, even when he does so empirically, he doesn’t hesitate to reiterate the moral case for open borders in the same post. For instance, in this blog post, Caplan considers the political externalities of immigration, but closes by making the statist generation (deportation) analogy to highlight the moral case. This probably puts off commenters as they get the feeling that Caplan is using his claimed moral superiority to evade the actual arguments offered by restrictionists and refusing to engage with restrictionists’ framing of the data. It’s easy to accuse Caplan’s open borders advocacy as an elite conscience salve and libertarian pipedream. Further, people who don’t share Caplan’s moral intuitions may think that even his empirical assertions are tainted by his moral prejudices against intuitively correct ideologies such as citizenism. [UPDATE: The linked blogger from the preceding sentence responds here]. For instance, Mercer:
They have confirmed my opposition to open borders.
Your posts mainly state how proud you are of being morally superior compared to the vast majority of your fellow citizens. I don’t see why your cosmopolitan values are superior to nationalism. Given that the vast majority of people are not cosmopolitan libertarians your posts about immigration strike me as naive.
You are indifferent to the costs of low skilled immigrants in terms of public schooling and medical care which vastly exceed the amount of taxes they pay. You never address why California’s budget is a mess if having more low skilled immigrants is such a good thing.
Since you claim to be so indifferent to whether migration helps or hurts, it’s hard for those who are focused on what would actually make things better overall to trust that your analysis is unbiased.
You have been completely unpersuasive. Indeed, I have been horrified and outraged by your arguments, and am unable to critique them properly, because such a critique would sound like a personal attack.
If you want to be more persuasive, you should move to a nonwhite suburb, with non white political leadership, nonwhite police, and nonwhite juries. I guarantee you will suffer disadvantage immeasurably more severe than Jim Crow.
Your arguments rest wholly and entirely on the foundation that anyone who points out fallacies necessarily implicitly or explicitly invokes racist hate facts. You arguments are that whosoever contradicts them, risks being punished.
Factually, Donald is incorrect. To my knowledge, Caplan hasn’t called anybody racist, at least in the context of immigration debates. In fact, like me, Caplan has explicitly disavowed the use of shaming tactics on his opponents. Nonetheless, Donald’s confusion is understandable given the fact that Caplan constantly serves to reiterate the moral case, often wearing out the patience of restrictionists and fence-sitters.
- Although Caplan has proposed keyhole solutions, he doesn’t spend enough effort developing these or explaining why and how they may actually be made practical and palatable. Commenters on his posts may get the impression that he is using “keyhole solutions” as a way to deflect restrictionist arguments rather than looking at the reality on the ground regarding what’s actually politically feasible.
- Caplan doesn’t adequately address what might happen under truly open borders. He uses data for what happens at current levels of immigration to make assertions about open borders. I think this isn’t true, because Caplan has explicitly addressed precautionary principle-style arguments (an excerpt from his article is at the precautionary principle page on this website). And he’s happy to engage in thought experiments about what might happen under open borders — his exchange with David Henderson is linked to from the swamped page on this site. But he probably doesn’t address these enough. For instance, Silas Barta:
I’m very much in favor of relaxing immigration restrictions, Bryan_Caplan, but gwern beat me to it: all you do is say why immigration is good in the abstract, without addressing the hard issue of where you have to stop it (or making the case that you never have to!): that is, how do you know when to slow it down to the point that immigrants aren’t undoing the very memes that made the country worth immigrating to in the first place.
(Can we call that the hipster critique? “I came to this country *before* it was cool!”)
You have, from time to time, refuted concerns about related “political externalities” of immigration … for existing levels. These results are not, however, robust for the general case of letting everyone come to America who wants to.
I’m sure that your idea of “open borders” stops *somewhere* short of “Allow the Chinese Army to ‘peacefully immigrate’ to strategic locations, shortly before becoming unpeaceful and rendering America defenseless.” Where is that point, and why?
- Caplan’s case for open borders is heavily US-centric, especially when he tries to bring in empirics (the moral case is country-independent). This means that people in other countries may find his empirics unconvincing or irrelevant, particularly if he appeals to specific facts about the United States that aren’t valid for other countries. For instance, Sam Hardwick:
I used to be generally in favour of open borders, at least in principle. However, after more careful consideration, partly after reading your “Why Should We Restrict Immigration?” essay, I am much more skeptical. This is partly because I’m not an American (but a Finn), and as the American argument is only so-so and relies on the relative cheapness of the American welfare state, it seems that in Europe open borders would be (at least in current conditions) a huge mistake.
- Open borders advocate can do a better job by separating the moral case from the practical case for open borders. When discussing empirical issues, it may be best to refrain from discussing the underlying morality of the issues, and a discussion of the morality of the issues can be carried out separately from a discussion of the empirical issues. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, because empirical claims often have moral assumptions loaded into their framing. I pointed out in my blog post Efficient or artificial? Restrictionists versus open borders advocates. And it might backfire, because refusing to challenge restrictionists’ flawed moral premises and getting bogged down in the empirics at the outset might make it harder to then critique restrictionists on the moral plane. Perhaps the best strategy is to first issue a moral refutation, and then say something like, “For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to dabble with the empirics.” But this too might backfire, because making one’s moral stance clear means that fence-sitters may think that one’s ideological bias is polluting one’s empirical analysis. At the end of the day, I’m not really sure how best to go about addressing this concern.
I think the simplest thing that can be done is to sound (and be) less conceited and more humble when making one’s moral arguments. To be blunt, Caplan comes across as too sure of himself, too elitist, and too holier-than-thou, and I think that this backfires on people because it appears like he’s more closed-minded and arrogant than he actually is.
- Open borders advocates could do more to reach out to restrictionists to articulate their specific objections to keyhole solutions and then engage in a discussion of these objections, and keyhole solutions to the objections themselves. For instance, guest worker programs are met with the second-class residents objection, and open borders advocates may do better to do restrictionists’ legwork for them by proposing ways to empirically address, rather than morally dismiss, these objections (this loops back to point (1)).
- Open borders advocates should spend less effort trying to show that immigration under the status quo is not harmful, and more effort on dealing with the claimed harms of radically more open borders. Admittedly, given the current state of debate on immigration, moving from popular support for more restriction to popular support for the status quo might itself be an improvement. But open borders advocates should be thinking about expanding the Overton window far more radically. Only a few papers (such as those in the double world GDP literature) have considered the economic effects of moderately and radically more open borders. I don’t know any analysis of crime under open borders except my hastily written blog post on the subject. Clearly, this is an area where the game needs to be stepped up. Open borders advocates should embrace the label of radicals, and should stop sounding like they’re defending the status quo.
- Open borders advocates should separate generic moral and practical arguments from country-specific arguments. I think that the Open Borders website does a good job of this. As I noted in my personal statement on the site:
Most websites dealing with migration issues do so from a very country-specific perspective. They are thus able to focus on the details of specific laws and concrete numbers. But it’s hard to separate out the country-specific aspects of their analysis from the generic arguments being made. With the Open Borders website, I’ve tried to separate out the generic arguments from the country-specific arguments. Since country-specific arguments already receive so much attention elsewhere, building the country-specific pages typically requires linking to existing resources. As of August 2012, all the country-specific pages are US-specific, but this may change with time as more content is added.
For examples of this distinction, see crime (generic) versus Hispanic crime and illegal immigration in the United States (US-specific). Or see suppression of wages of natives (generic) versus US-specific suppression of wages of natives (US-specific).
- The type of arguments that are made should be tailored to the blog’s readership. For a general audience, dealing with the suppression of wages of natives and welfare state/fiscal burden objection arguments might be the right thing to do. For an elite audience of libertarians, conservatives, and free marketers, political externalities is the way to go. Given Caplan’s ecumenical readership, IQ deficit also probably deserves more focus than it would do on a mainstream blog.
Ways in which Caplan has strengthened the case against open borders
There are some ways in which Caplan’s writings have helped some people cement their restrictionist intuitions, and helped others turn away from open borders. My compilation suggests that 10/90 of the respondents were persuaded by Caplan toward more closed borders. Some of these are already listed above — they see Caplan’s failure to persuade as an argument against open borders, because they think that if Caplan, an intellectual superstar and open borders advocate, can’t make a better case for open borders, the case for open borders must indeed be weak. For instance, here’s a little excerpt from C’s comment, quoted above in full:
For me, personally–Significant negative effect towards open borders. I very much respect your arguments on a lot of topics (e.g., education and signaling) and if someone of your intelligence can only come up with arguments of the level you (and to be fair, Vipul Naik) have, then I think the open borders case is extremely weak.
However, there are also a few ways that Caplan has actively provided arguments against open borders. The first has been to provide a degree of respectability and intellectual sophistication to political externalities that was previously lacking among restrictionists. In his book The Myth of the Rational Voter, Caplan notes that the incentives for voters are not sufficient for them to exert the intellectual effort to be rational. Restrictionists build on this by combining it with the obvious axiom that wherever there are human failings, foreigners are worse than natives, to conclude that therefore, the borders must be closed. Of course, Caplan’s own work says very little about who’s worse as a voter — a native-born or an immigrant — and Caplan has been quite okay with keyhole solutions that deny citizenship and voting rights to immigrants. But it’s the basic groundwork provided by Caplan, rather than the subtleties of his analysis, that have been crucial for building the restrictionist case based on political externalities. For instance, Peter Taylor
Completely unpersuasive. I wrote an appendix on immigration policy to my e-book on libertarianism, and you provided me with a great amount of fodder for the anti-immigration position.
The practical argument for libertarianism depends on secure property rights. Secure property rights depend on government policy. Government policy depends on the behavior of irrational voters (great book, by the way!). The mix of irrationality we get from voters depends on quasi-religion and demographics, which are affected by immigration.
If you want to persuade me, start by giving me an equation describing the rate at which immigrants assimilate.
On the bright side, American democracy was probably doomed even without immigration.
This para added later, 16 hours after publication of the post. I’d intended to say this in the original post, but forgot: Although political externalities have been Caplan’s main contribution, his endorsement of the importance of IQ as well as of the heritability of IQ and character traits has been fodder for restrictionist arguments based on the IQ deficit of immigrants.
Lessons for open borders advocacy
I now turn from the analysis of the comments to my own speculation on what lessons these comments hold for open borders advocacy. I list these below.