In response to Tyler Cowen
October 7, 2013 15 Comments
Tyler Cowen explains, in a post about a new paper on the effects of migration, why he does not favor open borders:
And no I do not favor open borders even though I do favor a big increase in immigration into the United States, both high- and low-skilled. The simplest argument against open borders is the political one. Try to apply the idea to Cyprus, Taiwan, Israel, Switzerland, and Iceland and see how far you get. Big countries will manage the flow better than the small ones but suddenly the burden of proof is shifted to a new question: can we find any countries big enough (or undesirable enough) where truly open immigration might actually work?
What Cowen seems to mean, is that any rich country that opened its borders to unlimited immigration would get swamped. As an advocate of taxing immigration, I find this objection easy to respond to. Israel and Taiwan are special cases because they face immediate national security threats from groups that contest the sovereignty of the government in the territory it claims, so I’ll set those to one side. In general, I do recognize threats of violence as a legitimate, albeit rare, reason to restrict immigration. But Switzerland and Iceland will serve as suitable examples. So, what would happen if Switzerland taxed immigration but eliminated all quantity restrictions, and while making it clear from the start, of course, that immigrants would not be eligible for public welfare benefits, and had to pre-imburse the government for the costs of deporting them if they became destitute (see DRITI for details). Answer: the living standards of native Swiss would skyrocket. Swiss entrepreneurs would thrive, building factories galore and scoring massive export success in Europe on the strength of their lower labor costs. The Swiss government would enjoy an enormous surge in tax revenue, and would pour out generous largesse on Swiss citizens, thus raising the living standards even of those who aren’t entrepreneurs, or for that matter even those who lose their jobs to immigrants, as many Swiss would. Swiss households would also enjoy an abundance of cheap domestic servants, who would raise their standard of living still further. Against this, the Swiss would see far more poverty in their country (against which the border currently serves as a blindfold), but if they are enlightened, this would trouble them no more than poverty in developing countries does now. In fact, it would trouble them less, because they would have the moral satisfaction of knowing that they were not exacerbating world poverty through the closure of their borders, but on the contrary, that, occasional mistakes aside, all those hordes of impoverished immigrants were bettering their condition relative to what it would have been at home, else they would not have come.
Cowen is smart enough to figure all this out for himself. The communication failure occurs because we mean different thing by “open borders.” I mean simply that immigrants will be allowed to enter the country physically, and allowed to work. Not that they will reside there on equal terms with citizens, subject to the same tax rules for example. Certainly not that they will have access to the vote, which is a separate issue, or to welfare benefits, which I would strongly object to. Perhaps he would favor the DRITI approach to open borders, I don’t know. It seems as if taxing immigration, and keyhole solutions generally, are not on Cowen’s radar screen. I don’t particularly blame him for that: it seems like the more sophisticated ways of talking about open borders which have been developed in the conversations at this site haven’t filtered out into the mainstream yet. But that’s a shame, because it would be much more interesting to hear Cowen’s response to the sophisticated case to open borders. I don’t learn anything from comments like those above.
In my view the open borders advocates are doing the pro-immigration cause a disservice. The notion of fully open borders scares people, it should scare people, and it rubs against their risk-averse tendencies the wrong way. I am glad the United States had open borders when it did, but today there is too much global mobility and the institutions and infrastructure and social welfare policies of the United States are, unlike in 1910, already too geared toward higher per capita incomes than what truly free immigration would bring. Plunking 500 million or a billion poor individuals in the United States most likely would destroy the goose laying the golden eggs. (The clever will note that this problem is smaller if all wealthy countries move to free immigration at the same time, but of course that is unlikely.)
It’s possible that open borders weaken the pro-immigration cause by making it look scarier. In several years of advocating open borders, though, I’ve never had the impression that any of my interlocutors actually came to favor more restrictionist policies than they had before. The worst that happened was that some people seemed to become more self-conscious and articulate in their opposition to open borders, but if anything they seemed to stake out policy positions on immigration far to the left of the mainstream, in their effort to fend off my open borders advocacy while still feeling they have some claim to the moral high ground. For example, someone might say: Yes, we should take in all the immigrants we can handle, but not open borders, that’s crazy! “All the immigrants we can handle” is major progress compared to the mainstream. In this case, open borders advocacy might serve to expand the Overton window. See the post “How persuasive are open borders advocates? The case of Bryan Caplan” for more analysis of this.
There are a number of ways that open borders advocates might be helping the pro-immigration cause. For one thing, immigration advocates like Tyler Cowen can attack us in order to make themselves seem reasonable and moderate, while still supporting greatly increased immigration! For another, people who are aware of the case for open borders, even if they don’t come out in favor of it themselves, may start to feel less of a need to say “… but we do need to control the borders” as the bookend of a defense of amnesty for undocumented immigrants, or more high-skilled immigrants, or whatever. The more we become known, the less people will be able to say “everyone agrees we need to control the borders.”
Mainly, though, Cowen’s remarks make me really wish we could raise the level of debate. It would be nice if we didn’t have to explain ad nauseam that the fact that “social welfare policies of the United States are, unlike in 1910, already too geared toward higher per capita incomes than what truly free immigration would bring” is of no relevance, because of course any plausible open borders policy would involve denying immigrants most or all access to welfare, and of course it’s stupid to object to that on humanitarian grounds, since immigrants wouldn’t come here unless it made them better off. It would be nice if Cowen would feel the need to clarify his attitude to taxing migration and keyhole solutions.
UPDATE: Welcome Marginal Revolution readers! Here’s Tyler’s post linking to us. His comment:
On open borders, Nathan Smith responds, but I consider it a surrender. What he calls “open borders” I call “not open borders.” Price and quantity are dual.
Do we agree then? Good!
The comment “price and quantity are dual” is a masterpiece of laconic insight-cum-evasion. Here’s a way of unpacking it that stresses the insight part. In trade economics, it is often claimed that quotas are equivalent to tariffs, because limiting the quantity of imports via quotas and raising the price of imports via tariffs have the same economic effects. However, this is true only if the right to import under the quota is auctioned off. The same logic can be applied to immigration. See my post “Auctions, tariffs, and taxes” for more analysis of these distinctions.
I added “-cum-evasion” because a reader might, just possibly, get the impression that what Cowen calls my “not open borders” position is the same as the status quo. In fact, not only is DRITI not the status quo, but the policy of auctioning visas, which could arguably be considered equivalent on the ground that “price and quantity are dual,” is also very far from the status quo.
At any rate, if you’re interested in parsing these distinctions between “open borders” and “not open borders,” in defining and refining the concept of open borders, and classifying the arguments for it and the objections to it, you’ve come to the right place! I daresay that no one on the web does that better than we do.