Political externalities

See also welfare state/fiscal burden objection, contraction of welfare state, citizen preference for reduced immigration, foreign control and loss of sovereignty, alien invasion metaphor, and electing a new people.

The short version of this objection to immigration is that immigrants tend to vote the wrong way, i.e., they vote for policies inimical to prosperity or to a healthy society. Part of this may be their efforts at home country policy replication: migrants from countries with failed political systems tend to vote for politicians and policies that resemble the failed systems of their home countries. Thus, they import the bad governance structures and policies that caused the countries sending them to fail. This argument is related to but typically a subset of arguments that immigrants may fail to assimilate to the political values of their new country, or that they may not emotionally adopt their new country as their own.

Some versions of this argument also consider other characteristics of the immigrants (such as the expected IQ) that may systematically differ from those of natives. IQ may have an indirect effect on one’s political preferences. At the aggregate, the effect could lead to systemic changes.

Who makes this argument?

The argument is generally made by people on the “right” side of the political spectrum, which includes conservatives, libertarians, and other free marketers, particularly because of concerns that immigrants “lean left” and vote for statist and socialist policies. However, left liberals may also express concern about immigrants’ lack of respect for civil liberties and free speech.

Here are some writings that make the case in favor of political externalities being a sufficient justification to radically restrict immigration:

  • The Negative Externalities of Immigration, a blog post by Richard Hoste, where he writes:

    Unfortunately, the low IQ masses vote. They demand free health care, welfare and schools for their children.

  • Open borders and the Welfare State , a blog post by Tino Sanandaji, which is an English translation of a piece originally written in Swedish. The original is here.
  • Some commenters on EconLog have raised concerns about how immigrants might suppress civil rights and undo progressive gains. For instance, Ken B worries about how immigrants may undo the gains toward gay marriage. CC and Eric are worried about immigrants making abortion illegal in the United States.
  • Various people have made “tipping point” arguments about the political externalities of immigration: a little more immigration will cause the US to permanently slide down the slippery slope to statism and socialism and become a banana republic. A moderate version of this concern is expressed in this comment by Mark Crankshaw.

Summary of counterarguments

Some of the counter-arguments are expressed by Bryan Caplan in a blog post:

1. Open borders are an extremely important component of the free market and human liberty.  The labor market is roughly 70% of the economy.  Labor is the main product that most people around the world have to sell.  Immigration restrictions massively distort this market, and deprive literally billions of people of the freedom to sell their labor to willing employers.  So even if open borders made all other policies much less pro-market and pro-liberty, the (open borders + side effects thereof) package would almost certainly constitute a net gain for free markets and liberty.

2. The political effect of immigrants on markets and liberty is at worst modestly negative.  The median American isn’t a libertarian, and the median immigrant isn’t a Stalinist.  We’re talking about marginal disagreements between social democrats, nothing more.  Immigrants’ low voter turnout and status quo bias further dilute immigrants’ negative political effect.

3. Immigrants have overlooked positive effects for markets and liberty.  Voters resent supporting outgroups; that’s a standard explanation for why ethnically diverse America has a smaller welfare state than, say, Denmark.  So even if all immigrants want a bigger welfare state, their very presence reduces native support for redistribution.  Immigrants are also markedly more pro-liberty and pro-market than natives in one vital respect: They favor more open borders.

Other Caplan blog posts that make these arguments in more detail are listed below:

More links on the empirical debate surrounding political externalities are at the end of this page.


  • Deportation meta-counterargument: Bryan Caplan has considered the statist generation analogy: why not deport the younger generation of voters, who tend to be statists?
  • Turning the camera around: In a blog post titled Turning the Camera Around: the Political Externalities of the Status Quo, Bryan Caplan considers the political externalities of the present situation from the perspective of immigrants and potential immigrants, drawing on parallels with apartheid (and also, implicitly, Jim Crow laws).
  • Rejecting slippery slopes: In a blog post comment, Evan provides a slippery slope argument (note that Evan uses “political externality” a little more loosely than its use on this page, but this is partly because restrictionists often tend to conflate the changes immigrants bring about through their voting power and their use of existing institutions determined politically):

    My main objection to the “immigrants use too much welfare” type arguments isn’t necessarily whether or not they do. It’s that using such arguments is a slippery slope that can lead to all sorts of horrible socialist interventions. If you start restricting and regulating a group of people because they place a greater than average burden on social services, where are you going to stop? What conservatives and libertarians fail to realize, when they make these political externalities arguments, is that the left uses these exact same arguments to justify all sorts of awful restrictions on our freedoms.

    Smoking bans? The left justifies them by arguing that smoking causes political externalities. Banning fast food restaurants? The left justifies it by arguing that fat people cause political externalities. Soda taxes? Again, the left justifies it by arguing that fat people cause political externalities. Forcing people to buy health care? The left justifies them by arguing that uninsured people cause political externalities. Onerous safety regulations? The left justifies them by arguing that injuries cause political externalities. And the worst example of all that I found was a (luckily unsuccessful) attempt by a faction in the Dutch Parliament to tax stay-at-home moms because since they’re not working they’re not returning the “investment” the government made in their educations.

    So I’ve decided, as a matter of principle, to unilaterally reject all “political externality” based arguments for restricting people’s freedom, whether it’s restricting immigration, or restricting fatty foods. The slippery slope it leads down is just too dangerous.

    I reject “Overlord Arguments” for the same reason, most conservatives and libertarians who use them as a justification for immigration restriction fail to realize that such arguments can and have been used by the far Left to justify every single social engineering scheme they want to force on us.

Keyhole solutions

Guest worker programs whereby people can live and work freely in another country but do not acquire the right to vote may be an example of a keyhole solution.

Empirical debate

The empirical debate on the political externalities of open borders has been carried out through a number of blog posts. Some of these are below:

The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP — Bryan Caplan

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