Roy Beck unwittingly makes the case for open borders

In a video titled Immigration, World Poverty, and Gumballs, Dr. Roy Beck (CEO of NumbersUSA, an immigration restrictionist group) argues for the futility of trying to solve the gigantic problem of world poverty by permitting a trickle of immigration:

Dr. Beck’s goal is to argue against immigration, but a careful reading of his arguments shows that they provide strong support to substantially more open borders as a mechanism to double world GDP and end world poverty.

What Dr. Beck gets right

Dr. Beck is correct to point out that the United States currently takes in a very small number of immigrants, and even the most ambitious currently realistic proposals, which may double or triple the number of immigrants, would still be quantitatively insignificant relative to the size either of the United States or the countries sending immigrants. Further, he is also right that, with the exception of illegal immigration (most of it along the southern border with Mexico) most immigration to the US is that of highly skilled workers, rather than the few billion people who live in moderate and extreme poverty.

Thus, Dr. Beck is right to chide those supporters of the status quo who believe that current US immigration policy is making a significant direct impact on reducing world poverty. It’s not.

What Dr. Beck gets wrong and omits from consideration

Dr. Beck does, however, get a few things wrong. Most importantly, he ignores the fact that the value of an individual escaping poverty and improving his or her condition of life is not reduced by the existence of others in poverty. Saving a single starving child is no less worthwhile an endeavor if there are a hundred other starving children. Consider the story of The Girl and the Starfish (quote from

Once there was a great, great storm. Waves high as mountains, winds strong as giants.

But that’s not important

What is important is the next day, when Old Man Acha comes walking down the beach, looking for bodies and treasure, the last remnants of ships gone to sleep in the storm. He has to pick his way carefully, ’cause the beach is littered in starfish, castaways from the deep. The storm plucked them from their watery beds and deposited the poor souls on the sandy shore. Acha steps around them – many still alive. He keeps ambling up the beach, minding his own business, when he spies a youngling. She’s throwing starfish into the ocean, many as she can, but still not makin’ a dent in the piles. The Old Man, he wonders at this and says:

“Why bother to throw back any? How can it matter when there are so many? You throw back one, you still left with a ton? You never save them all.”

That little girl she doesn’t even pause to glance his way. She just keeps on flinging those ‘fish back in the sea. She stops only long enough to say:

“It matters to this one”

as she flings it into the ocean.

As noted on the Double world GDP page, a literature summary by Michael Clemens suggests that even partial open borders would lead to a greater increase in world GDP than the removal of all barriers to trade and capital flows. Also, as noted on the end of poverty page, a significant fraction of the individuals from poor countries who escape poverty have done so through migration, even with currently restrictive migration policies. The country-level aggregated statistics often paint a misleading picture due to compositional effects, which is why development economists Michael Clemens and Lant Pritchett use income per natural instead of income per resident to track the effect of migration.

Dr. Beck alludes to some of the other harms to immigrant-sending countries, notably brain drain. However, he does not consider all the arguments against worrying about brain drain. And he doesn’t even mention that remittances to poor countries are far bigger in magnitude than all foreign aid.

Finally, Dr. Beck’s argument contains an interesting asymmetry. On the one hand, he dismisses the value of a few million people from third world countries escaping poverty and/or a few skilled workers from third world countries being able to find a job in the developed world that allows them to put their skills to better use for the benefit of the world, based on the logic that these are only a drop in the bucket. On the other hand, he expresses great concern for the even more modest harms to immigrant-receiving countries.

All in all, it’s a great speech, and despite its errors of omission and commission, it does get one thing right: what the United States has today is far from open borders. Something much more radical is needed to make a rapid dent in world poverty. Kudos to Dr. Beck for spreading this important truth!

Why was immigration freer in 19th century USA?

In a blog post titled The Golden Age of Migration, Bryan Caplan notes that, despite its many flaws, the 19th century US was morally better than the current US in one important respect: open borders. Caplan quotes a passage from the book Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future and adds:

Imagine – there was a time when elite opinion and public policy took free immigration seriously. All democracy did to tarnish this political miracle was scapegoat Asian immigrants, while leaving the doors open to not just Europe, but Latin America as well. Whatever its flaws, the Gilded Age was truly the Golden Age of Immigration. Libertarians – and anyone who cares about the genuinely poor – should give credit where credit is due.

An important question is: what has changed since then, and why? There seem to be three kinds of reasons:

  1. Public and elite opinion about the wisdom/desirability of immigration restrictions has changed. See the then versus now page for some arguments that have been offered about the differences between the present and the past.
  2. The technological/financial feasibility of immigration restrictions has changed. In the 19th century, the US federal government was small, hence it lacked the financial and technological resources to enforce immigration restrictions. Passports had not been introduced. Now, with the exception of migration along the southern border, most forms of immigration into the United States can be controlled at relatively low direct cost.
  3. Public and elite opinion about the moral permissibility of immigration restrictions has changed. In the 19th century, however much people hated immigrants, shutting down immigration just wasn’t an option morally on the table, just as deportation to Africa is not a moral option to the problem of black crime in the United States today.

What is the right mix of reasons? My best guess: (1) is unlikely, because anti-foreign bias has been there since the dawn of history. Further, the problems created by immigrants, both real and perceived, haven’t shrunk that much since the 19th century. So, I suspect the reason is some sort of mix of (2) and (3), where they both feed into each other — if immigration restrictions aren’t technically feasible, then they aren’t a salient option morally either, and vice versa.

Any other ideas?