The American polity can endure and flourish with open borders
November 2, 2012 18 Comments
Post by Nathan Smith (regular blogger for the site, joined April 2012). See:
Very interesting discussion in a recent comments section. Let me start with a quote from an e-mail by Garett Jones to Vipul Naik:
I would emphasize a different conclusion: That the low-IQ immigrants will tend to worsen the institutions of the higher-IQ countries they move to. Low IQ immigrants will, to some degree, tend to make the country they move to more like the country they came from.
Partly this will be due to MRV and Caplan/Miller reasons: low IQ groups vote for bad policies. Partly it’s because they will tend to elect individuals from their constituencies, which will, on average, tend to lower the average IQ of the legislature. And partly it’s because the bureaucracy will tend to hire individuals from low-skill groups, which will lower government quality.
For these and other reasons, new low IQ citizens impose a tax on the nation’s institutions, and this institutional cost should be counted in a candid cost-benefit analysis.
*Shorter version: Good institutions are rare treasures, and institutions are endogenous with respect to (among other things) citizen IQ. *
I would like to bracket the concerns in the second paragraph about voting, because I regard this as a solved problem, as far as the theory of open borders is concerned. Just because you let people in doesn’t mean you have to let them vote. There are already millions of Green Card holders in the US who can’t vote. The keyhole solution (Vipul’s term: I hadn’t thought of it at the time) which I advocate in Principles of a Free Society is open borders with (a) migrants preimbursing the government for their voluntary deportation if they become destitute (at least those under a new open-borders visa), (b) a surtax on (those) migrants, (c) mandatory savings, withdrawable only in the migrant’s home country, or forfeitable as part of (d) a path to “earned” citizenship once a migrant has saved a certain threshold amount in this mandatory savings account. Migrants would thus be given a substantial incentive to return home rather than to stay. Those who would choose to stay would presumably do so: (a) because their homelands were an especially bleak alternative; (b) because they foresaw high earnings in America so that forfeiting the savings account was worth it (these people would probably have relatively high IQs, on average); or (c) because they especially like, admire, and enjoy America (these people would presumably place a particularly high value on American institutions). To mix these migrants into the electorate is a very different, and doubtless much more favorable, prospect, than simply allowing anyone to come and vote. Of course, this is just one of many possibilities that would separate the right to come, live, and work from the right to vote. I made a similar point in the comments of the Garett Jones post, and added that “It’s even easier to maintain high hiring standards for the bureaucracy, which obviously doesn’t have to, and doesn’t, hire a representative cross-section of the resident population.” I also posed the question:
If I were to hypothesize that the maintenance of high-quality institutions depends mainly on the characteristics of an elite, and need not be much affected by adverse changes in the composition of the broad mass of the population, would the evidence that Garett has studied contradict me?
This was the jumping-off point for a very interesting debate between BK and John Lee. BK’s comments, in particular, are highly interesting and informative, yet I find myself unconvinced and dissenting at many points. BK answers my question:
Yes, if we are just referring to the overall demographics of a country. Note that across countries, smart people earn higher incomes as the proportion of smart people rises, not the absolute total.
Chinese-Singaporeans generate income almost twice as great in mostly Chinese Singapore as the large Chinese-Malaysian minority does in Malaysia (about $70,000 per annum vs about $38,000), even though there are less than 3 million Chinese in Singapore but almost 7 million in Malaysia. But the Chinese make up 75% of Singapore vs 25% of Malaysia…
There is a Chinese elite, but this isn’t enough to fix the institutions, which have to represent the general population. All this occurred in the context of strong legal discrimination in favor of Malay majority, racialized anti-business sentiment, and big gaps in political views between Chinese and non-Chinese Malaysians.
OK, but wait. There is a Chinese business elite in Malaysia, but the political elite is Malay. It is this Malay political elite that imposes “strong legal discrimination in favor of Malay majority, racialized anti-business sentiment,” etc. It is also important that (a) the Malays have deeper historic roots whereas the Chinese are relatively recent arrivals, and (b) the Malays are linguistically and religiously homogeneous (more or less, I think: BK and John Lee both know the region better than I do). If we’re looking for lessons from Singapore/Malaysia that cross-apply to a hypothetical open-borders United States, this argument would only be relevant if we’re supposing that voting immigrants would become the majority of the population, develop solidarity among themselves, and vote for “strong legal discrimination” and “racialized anti-business sentiment” against the offspring of today’s natives. With immigration tariffs and a gradual path to citizenship, you could more or less ensure that voting immigrants would never constitute a majority. Since immigrants would come from many different countries, it’s unlikely they’d develop solidarity among themselves except on wedge issues that related to them directly. Instead, they’d want to assimilate with American natives. Given that American society has a powerful absorptive capacity– if you’ve got fluent English and a college education and want to be a normal American, people will treat you like a normal American; and if you wereborn here, it’s taken for granted that you’re a normal American, never mind your background– any scenario resembling that in Malaysia is really quite implausible.
Also, I think the fact that immigrants would know they were immigrants makes a big difference. Malays in Malaysia think of the land as theirs. They’ve been there the longest. South Africa is in a similar situation, as far as I understand: black South Africans see themselves as the rightful owners of the soil, the whites as intruders. Russia, whose history I know better, stands in striking contrast to the 19th-century United States, because while they could both be described as multi-ethnic empires, in Russia the subordinate nationalities had never consented to be part of the Russian Empire, but for the most part had been simply conquered (it’s a little more complicated but never mind), whereas in the United States, the subordinate nationalities (if I may put it that way for the sake of the parallel) had in a real sense consented to rule from Washington by crossing oceans to immigrate. They were therefore much less inclined to question the legitimacy of the government and far more inclined to develop patriotic loyalty to the United States, superimposed on a lingering loyalty to their various mother countries.
BK asserts that “institutions… have to represent the general population.” No, they don’t. Certainly, it’s not a logical necessity. In England after the Norman Conquest, for a couple of centuries, institutions represented the Norman conquerors, not the Anglo-Saxon peasantry, just to give one example. Perhaps BK only meant that institutions do represent the general population in Malaysia. Fine, though even then, I find “the general population” a question-begging reification. Anyway, I do not think it’s the case, in general, that institutions depend all that much on the median voter even in democracies. Caplan’s post on affluence and influence summarizes recent research that politicians listen much more to the rich than to the poor. Meanwhile, courts are staffed by people with law degrees. They are only very indirectly answerable to the electorate. The Federal Reserve is autonomous, and listens to the economics professoriate more than to politicians. BK contradicts my claim about the bureaucracy, saying:
Er…bureaucracies and even private firms are required to hire representative cross-sections along several dimensions under affirmative actions and disparate impact standards. And institutions that are seen as unrepresentative take serious reputational penalties, while there are strong political pressures from subgroup activists for equal representation. This is true of the military, which is relevant for the risk of coups or civil wars, federal bureaucrats setting policy, teachers, PhD programs, science funding agencies, medical schools, law schools, university professors and researchers, and more.
I’m not sure that’s an accurate description of affirmative-action law, but at any rate, bureaucracies are certainly not required to higher a representative cross-section of the population in terms of ability. If you have to hire minorities, you’re certainly not barred from hiring the smartest minorities. Even if an ethnic group has lower than average IQ or education, there will be a few high achievers. Anyway, it’s certainly not infeasible to not extend affirmative-action practices to new immigrant groups; nor do I think it would be particularly difficult to avoid such an extension politically. American blacks (or African-Americans, though I don’t like that word, since it makes them sound like recent immigrants when they’ve been here, on average, longer than European-Americans like me) are a special case, because they never consented to come. Black Americans have an enduring identity in a way that Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, German-Americans, etc., have never had. Proximity and undocumentedness give Mexican immigration a special character– one advantage of open borders is that it would be disproportionately favorable to non-Mexicans for whom undocumented entry by land is not an option, and would therefore likely be less divisive because immigrants coming from many source countries would have nothing to assimilate to except mainstream American culture– but even Mexican-Americans have nothing like the distinctive identity that blacks do. I highly doubt that an open-borders scheme such as that in Principles would threaten American meritocracy. (On the contrary.)
Using the above statistics, if the Chinese-Malaysians could have done as well as Singapore by also seceding from Malaysia into Chinese-dominated countries, total GDP of the region would rise substantially just from letting the Chinese-Malaysians free of the Malaysian electorate, even if incomes back in Malaysia plummeted. But it gets even better: Singapore lets in millions of guest workers from non-Chinese Malaysia, among other places, who send back huge quantities of remittances. Singapore generates more innovations in science and technology with positive spillovers for the rest of the world.
Basically, patterns like this seem to suggest that total GDP and welfare are much increased by international segregation by IQ and other characteristics contributing to productivity and performance, and that giving every country in the world demographics representative of the world would be devastating.
The claims that “total GDP of the region would rise substantially” with segregation and that “total GDP and welfare are much increased by international segregation by IQ” are interesting because they are the kinds of claims that restrictionists would need to make and defend if they wanted to have a really strong case against open borders. If Malaysian Chinese who control 60% of the Malaysian economy could be rendered almost twice as productive by political segregation, that would increase regional GDP by 10% or so even if Malays’ incomes fell to zero. But this is a very suspect extrapolation. First, Singapore is a densely populated city, while Malaysian Chinese are more spread out. City-dwellers always tend to be more productive. So if the Malaysian Chinese escaped Malay rule but were still spread out, we shouldn’t expect Singaporean levels of productivity. More generally, Singapore is probably the world’s most productive society today. That takes getting a whole lot of things right: location, personalities, finding certain economic niches, an institutional history going back to British rule and Stamford Raffles. With all due respect to the Malaysian Chinese, to assume that if they just had independence they’d replicate the world’s most productive society is surely too generous.
That said, no one is suggesting that we should give every country in the world demographics representative of the world population. Open borders certainly wouldn’t lead to that. The US’s internal open borders don’t lead to every city, county, and state having demographics representative of the US population, and moving from Boston to Tampa or Minnesota to Maui would be a lot easier than moving from Bangladesh to Oslo or Beijing to Fairfax, VA, even if all immigration restrictions were removed. (Culture, distance from family, etc.) Certainly, segregation by IQ contributes to productivity; but it doesn’t need to be government-imposed. Harvard segregates by IQ through its admission process. Top research labs segregate by IQ: they hire only very smart people. One doesn’t need to stop uneducated immigrants at the border in order to keep them out of faculty lounges or academic seminars or corporate boardrooms.
For all our dueling, BK and I might not differ all that much. I agree that there’s such a thing as the American polity, and that it’s important to preserve the integrity of the American polity. That polity consists, at the top, of highly educated judges and economists and legislative aides and bankers and the like, but it extends down to all sorts of average voters who watch presidential debates even though they’re not being paid for it, and debate politics on Facebook, and deliberate about whom to vote for, and get indignant, and donate to campaigns, even though single solitary citizens can’t have any effect, so it’s all individually irrational. As important as preserving the American polity is, I think some methods– deportations, separation of families by force, exclusion of individuals whose best chances of religious freedom or economic opportunity lie here– are unacceptable. Fortunately, they are not necessary. With careful policy design, the American polity can endure and flourish with open borders.