My Path to Open Borders
January 2, 2013 19 Comments
This is a guest post by Bryan Caplan, one of the most influential voices in the economics blogosphere supportive of open borders. Caplan was a major inspiration for the creation of the Open Borders site and his blog, EconLog, was also an important recruiting ground for like-minded open borders advocates. In this blog post, Caplan describes his personal journey towards open borders.
In the subculture of economics blogs, I’m well-known as a champion of open borders. If you want to hear my reasons, read my “Why Should We Restrict Immigration?” and philosopher Michael Huemer’s “Is There a Right to Immigrate?” If you want to discover how I personally came to embrace my contrarian position, though, read on.
Until I was seventeen, my views on immigration were completely conventional. In 11th grade, I wrote a paper defending the “moderate” view that (a) contemporary levels of immigration were good for America, but (b) immigrants should have to learn English. As far as I remember, I didn’t discuss illegal immigration one way or the other. If you asked me about illegal immigration, I probably would have reflexively said, “I’m against it,” perhaps adding, “Well, illegals do a lot of jobs that Americans won’t.”
Growing up in Northridge – a suburb of Los Angeles – I had a lot of casual contact with immigrants. Starting in 5th grade, busing brought many low-income kids to my schools. About 60% were black, 40% Hispanic. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but many of the Hispanic students’ parents – and probably quite a few of the Hispanic students themselves – were illegal immigrants. Starting in junior high, my schools also had a fairly high number of Korean and other Asian immigrants. Since I was in honors classes for grades 7-12, I had disproportionately low contact with Hispanic immigrants, and disproportionately high contact with Asian immigrants. Roughly half of my friends were Asian, the children or grandchildren of immigrants. The rest were white, with no living immigrant ancestors. (My own great-grandparents on both sides were immigrants from Ireland, Latvia, Poland, and Ukraine).
My parents owned a few rental properties in Los Angeles, and they occasionally hired Hispanic day laborers to help with upkeep. As far as I remember, we all knew that these day laborers were illegal immigrants. But business was business; though they spoke little English, they worked hard. I vividly remember the day my dad hired a totally disappointing day laborer who spoke fluent English. Eventually my parents concluded that he was a U.S. citizen trying to pose as a hard-working illegal!
I changed my mind about proper immigration policy in my senior year of high school. The impetus, as usual for me, was not first-hand experience, but abstract argument. After reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, I became a vociferous libertarian. Given this orientation, I converted to open borders as soon as another libertarian pointed out that free immigration is just free trade applied to labor. If memory serves, Murray Rothbard’s Power and Market, chapter 3, section E was the pivotal discussion for me.
Still, I was too factually ignorant to grasp the enormity of the issue. I saw no reason to take immigration restrictions more seriously than, say, steel tariffs. I didn’t realize that immigration restrictions are far more onerous than trade barriers on steel. I falsely assumed that illegal immigration to the U.S. was pretty easy. I didn’t realize that the labor market is by far the largest market in the world – roughly 70% of national income. I didn’t realize that immigration restrictions trap hundreds of millions of people in Third World poverty.
The corollary, of course, is that I didn’t realize that open borders would drastically change every aspect of our society. Basic economics says that free immigration would drastically increase global wealth and drastically reduce global inequality. But basic psychology says that visibility of the remaining poverty and inequality would sharply rise. (The sobering implication is that even if open borders works as well as I expect, many First Worlders will angrily call it a disaster).
Given my ignorance, I was able to intellectually embrace open borders without taking the issue seriously. In high school and college, I spent far more time debating epistemology than immigration. When I tried to convert others to open borders, my main empirical argument was to point to America’s experience with virtually open borders in the 19th century. If free immigration was great then, why not now?
When critics pointed to the existence of the modern welfare state, I was dismissive: “Yet another reason to abolish the welfare state!” Murray Rothbard in particular inoculated me against all arguments of the form, “We can’t repeal X until we repeal Y.” He was outraged when Libertarian Party candidate Ed Clark opposed open borders during the 1980 presidential campaign:
[Clark] has already asserted that we can’t slash the welfare state until we have achieved “full employment”; he now adds that we can’t have free and open immigration until we eliminate the welfare state. And so it goes; the “gradualists” lock us permanently into the status quo of statism.i
By the time I started my undergraduate education at UC Berkeley, then, I was a staunch yet shallow devotee of free immigration. I simply lacked the knowledge base to understand the magnitude of the issue. My subsequent coursework did nothing to alleviate my ignorance. I was however an avid reader. Slowly but surely, year after year, the study of economics taught me that immigration restrictions were not just one wealth-destroying regulation among many, but the most destructive regulation in the First World. Julian Simon’s pro-population The Ultimate Resource probably influenced my thinking more than any other book, but there was no “aha” moment when I suddenly grasped the overarching importance of open borders.
As an undergraduate philosophy minor, in contrast, I connected the normative dots more readily. Philosophers emphasize a menagerie of mutually incompatible competing moral theories: utilitarianism, Kantianism, Rawlsianism, egalitarianism, even libertarianism. On immigration, however, all serious moral theories appear to support open borders. If everyone’s utility counts equally (utilitarianism), if we should treat everyone as an end in himself (Kantianism), if social institutions should maximize the welfare of the worst-off group (Rawlsianism), if inequality is intrinsically bad (egalitarianism), if it’s wrong to ban capitalist acts between consenting adults (libertarianism), how can anyone justify prohibiting poor foreigners from selling their labor to willing domestic employers?
By the time I finished my undergraduate studies, I already saw the issue of immigration as a moral Rosetta stone. Immigration is the issue that shows that mainstream American political views are wrong on their own terms. Libertarians are cruel because they oppose involuntary redistribution from rich to poor? But what are immigration restrictions – supported by mainstream liberals and conservatives alike – if not involuntary redistribution from poor to rich? Libertarians are callous because they oppose laws against discrimination? But what are immigration restrictions if not laws that make discrimination mandatory?
Did personal experience have any effect on my views at the time? Only tangentially. My girlfriend (now wife) emigrated from Communist Romania when she was seven. My best friend at Berkeley was the son of immigrants from Columbia and Costa Rica. Still, I was probably more intellectually animated by Communist governments’ brutal repression of emigration, and the logical symmetry between immigration and emigration laws. Imagine the West built the Berlin Wall to keep East German immigrants out. Would such a policy have been any less wrong?
After finishing at Berkeley, I moved on to Princeton’s Ph.D. economics program. Although Princeton is known for its labor economics group, I learned virtually nothing about immigration from the Princeton faculty – or my fellow students. The budding labor economists were far more interested in estimating the effects of education on earnings than the effect of immigration restrictions on global prosperity. Fortunately, Princeton’s schedule left ample time for free reading. Perhaps more importantly, the Internet was taking off, providing plenty of chances to argue about immigration with a broader audience on listservs and such.
After I joined the faculty of George Mason University in 1997, I included immigration in most of my syllabi. My main pedagogical innovation: emphasizing “keyhole solutions” to putative drawbacks of immigration. If immigrants are a burden on the welfare state, for example, why not simply restrict immigrants’ benefit eligibility instead of restricting immigration itself? The idea may seem obvious, but as brilliant and freedom-loving a man as Milton Friedman was almost ninety years old before he even considered it.
My earliest research had nothing to do with immigration. By 1998, however, I was hard at work on the articles that eventually turned into The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. The motivating puzzle: Why do democracies almost always adopt price controls, protectionism, and other “populist” policies that most economists scorn? My general explanation is that voters have systematically biased beliefs about economics. They sincerely believe and vote on the basis of the fallacies that teachers of introductory economists strive to expose.
The Myth of the Rational Voter doesn’t single out immigration restrictions as uniquely destructive. But such policies are one of the book’s leading whipping boys. Why do economists favor markedly less restrictive immigration policies than the public? Largely because the public suffers from what I call “anti-foreign bias.” They systematically underestimate the economic benefits of dealing with foreigners. In fact, most voters probably have a zero-sum model of immigration: More jobs for immigrants automatically means fewer jobs – and lower living standards – for us. Economists, in contrast, know that these zero-sum intuitions are wrong. Specialization and trade are the keys to prosperity – and civilization itself.
In hindsight, I have to ask myself: Why didn’t I do more research on immigration specifically? The main reason, to be honest, is that I sensed little demand for the kinds of papers I wanted to write. Economics journals don’t reward “big think.” Neither do they reward novel ideas you can express in plain English. So why bother to write such pieces?
The blogosphere drastically changed this calculus. After I joined EconLog in 2005, I suddenly had an ideal forum to share my views on immigration. Many of my posts were based on my lectures or lunch table arguments with my colleagues. Take “How Everyone Can Get Richer As Per-Capita GDP Falls,” blogged in March, 2005. [Open Borders note: Arguments of this sort are discussed at the compositional effects page on this website]. If I sent this piece to an economics journal, I doubt the editor would even send it to referees. Why not? Because the argument is “obvious” and “informal.” Yet if I wrote this piece as an op-ed, I’d just as surely be rejected. Why? Because the argument is “abstract” and “academic.”
Once I became a blogger, I finally had a home for my previously transient thoughts. Given this creative outlet, I started having more and better thoughts. It was a virtuous spiral. I believed in open borders over a decade before I started blogging, but blogging made my open borders advocacy deeper and clearer. Thanks to my blogging, the Cato Journal eventually invited me to write the lead article for a special 2012 issue on immigration. The product was “Why Should We Restrict Immigration?,” the piece that distills everything I know and think about the topic.
At Princeton, virtually all the immigrants I encountered came from elite foreign families. U.S. immigration law therefore had little effect on their lives. Their student visas were easy to get, and they could realistically expect U.S. work permits after graduation. Aspiring academics were well-aware that the U.S. already has near-open borders for research faculty. Once I became a professor at George Mason, however, I came to personally know many victims of U.S. immigration law. None of this affected the substance of my views, but it probably increased the intensity. The United States really does have the effrontery to brand good people as criminals for performing honest labor without government permission.
I know that open borders won’t happen anytime soon. Indeed, the research underlying The Myth of the Rational Voter makes me skeptical that open borders will ever come to pass. The younger generation seems slightly less hostile to immigration, but in absolute terms, they remain staunch restrictionists. Such is politics.
Sometimes I worry that if I spend too much time thinking about immigration, I’ll become bitter. I really do consider existing First World societies to be morally comparable to the Jim Crow South. Worse, actually. Under Jim Crow, blacks couldn’t legally do some jobs or live in some places in the country. Under modern immigration law, illegal immigrants can’t legally do any job or live anywhere in the country. Only First World citizens’ complacency keeps them from seeing themselves as the gnat-straining camel swallowers that they are.
At heart, though, I’m not a bitter person. My life is peachy keen. Immigration laws make me poorer, but I’m not hurting for anything. I just think it’s unjust that everyone on earth doesn’t enjoy the same rights that I do – and tragic that First World countries could do the right thing at a cost of less than nothing. Still, when I think about immigration, I’m grateful for the simple fact that I can make my voice heard. If one victim of immigration restrictions feels better knowing that someone somewhere stands up for his basic human right to accept a job offer from a willing employer, I’m glad.