Why put people behind doors?

The high versus low skill distinction in the immigration debates is back in the news. A recent bill that would reallocate US visas from a diversity lottery to people with STEM degrees failed to pass in the US House of Representatives on Thursday (September 20). In response, pro-immigration economist Alex Tabarrok wrote a blog post Still the No Brainer Issue of the Year linking back to his earlier piece The No Brainer Issue of the Year. Tabarrok quoted his own earlier piece:

Behind Door #1 are people of extraordinary ability: scientists, artists, educators, business people and athletes. Behind Door #2 stand a random assortment of people. Which door should the United States open?

Tabarrok is considering a hypothetical: suppose there were a limited number of people that the United States could offer admission. What people should it pick?

I think that, from the viewpoint of global benefits, particularly the innovation case for open borders, Door #1 is the right choice. However …

The dilemma posed by Tabarrok is fundamentally artificial. Alex Nowrasteh has pointed out in many blog posts (here and here) that the fundamental problem with immigration systems is not who gets to immigrate, but how many. In other words, there are artificial quantity restrictions on immigration that should be lifted or relaxed. Nowrasteh makes this point in the context of comparing auctions and tariffs as means to regulate immigration, and his argument is that auctions don’t make sense because the quantity restriction is artificial. Donald Boudreaux makes an important point in favor of low-skilled immigration here and Bryan Caplan makes another interesting observation here (more at the high versus low skill page).

Tabarrok’s dilemma reminds me of the many problems of lifeboat ethics. Lifeboat ethics dilemmas usually go as follows: you have a single lifeboat, and can only rescue a subset of people who are in danger of dying. What subset should you choose? How much value should you place on the lives of different people? Lifeboat ethics questions are fascinating and yield important moral insights, but they are hard precisely because they do not describe the ordinary real world. The equivalent to the Tabarrok context would be that there are enough lifeboats to rescue everybody but somebody for some reason decided to deploy only one of the dozens of lifeboats, and forbade other people from deploying the other lifeboats. (see also the killing versus letting die distinction).

Stepping back from the lifeboat analogy to the closed doors analogy, it strikes me as questionable that people should be getting put behind closed doors in the first place. Why build two doors, and then ask a third party to pick? This, after all, is not a reality show game of picking between cars and goats. The people behind the doors are real people with aspirations, dreams, and rights. If there were a genuine lifeboat-type situation where only a certain number of people could be allowed to immigrate, then Tabarrok’s arguments are valid and important. But the first point of order should be to question the premise of quantity restrictions, not to solve a constrained optimization problem.

I should close by saying that it isn’t Tabarrok himself who advocates the quantity restrictions. Tabarrok is in favor of expanded immigration of all sorts — see here and a more complete list here. So, when he chooses the lesser of two evils, it would not be appropriate to blame him. He may also be right that shifting existing visas to high-skilled workers may be the only politically realistic goal in the United States at present (though it seems that that, too, isn’t quite working out). But it’s also important to question the premise of quantity restrictions.

PS: A bunch of links with speculation on what would happen if the United States lifted all quantity restrictions on immigration is available at the swamped page of this website.

UPDATE: Alex Tabarrok responds with a tweet here saying “Yeah, I tend to agree. My pt. is that high-skill imm. is a no-brainer for people in US and if we can’t agree on that… “

The “Melting Pot”

Wikipedia’s article on the “melting pot” is interesting. Here’s a quote from J. Hector St. John de Crevecour:

“…whence came all these people? They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes… What, then, is the American, this new man? He is neither a European nor the descendant of a European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. . . . The Americans were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of population which has ever appeared.”− J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer.

And from a magazine article in 1875:

The fusing process goes on as in a blast-furnace; one generation, a single year even– transforms the English, the German, the Irish emigrant into an American. Uniform institutions, ideas, language, the influence of the majority, bring us soon to a similar complexion; the individuality of the immigrant, almost even his traits of race and religion, fuse down in the democratic alembic like chips of brass thrown into the melting pot.”[1]

And Henry James:

“Understand that America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups, your fifty languages, and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won’t be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to – these are fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”[3]

Continue reading “The “Melting Pot”” »

Deepening the Peace

If I were a foreign-policy advisor to a major presidential candidate, I’d suggest a foreign policy platform labeled “Deepening the Peace.” What would it consist of? First, celebrate the fact that the world has gotten a lot more peaceful in the past few decades, as many have observed, but most impressively Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and the authors of the Human Security Report. This shows that something is going right, and to some extent suggests we should “stay the course.” However– second– the trend towards world peace is less secure because of the persistence of many frozen conflicts: Georgia vs. Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia; Israel vs. Palestine; Japan and Russia over the Kuriles; Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands (the cause of a dangerous kerfuffle at the moment); India and Pakistan over Kashmir; the Kurds vs. various Middle Eastern states; Northern Ireland; Kyrgyz vs. Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan; Taiwan; Transnistria; Crimea; Cyprus; Serbia vs. Kosovo; the Falkland Islands; and Azerbaijan vs. Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. There are probably a lot more that I’ve never even heard of, but which the relevant locals care about intensely.

What does this have to do with open borders? Well, to begin with, whether or not these questions have anything to do with open borders, they clearly have to do with borders. Continue reading “Deepening the Peace” »

Open borders and the libertarian priority list: part 1

If you take a look at the pro-open borders people, pro-open borders reading list, or the pro-immigration and migration information web resources on this website, you’ll notice that libertarians are overrepresented compared to their share in the general population. Part of it stems from my own biases while collating material for the website (see, for instance, my avoidance of folk Marxist arguments) but part of it reflects the fact that, compared to other political philosophies, libertarianism is more likely to foster clear-cut and radical support for open borders, as outlined on the libertarian case for open borders page. Of course, there are many objections to the libertarian case as well, of which some, such as the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual, have been raised by libertarian thinkers. I personally don’t find these arguments convincing, but it’s not the goal of this blog post to rebut these arguments (you can learn more by following the links). Rather, my goal is to consider the question:

For a libertarian who is broadly convinced by the case for open borders, primarily from the libertarian perspective (but also based on other aspects of the case), how important should support or advocacy for open borders be, relative to other libertarian causes?

This is an important question, because libertarians, who generally tend to be economically literate, understand that time, money, and energy for libertarian advocacy are scarce. Allocating these scarce resources wisely is important if libertarians wish to make a practical impact. [For this discussion, I am dodging Patri Friedman’s critique of libertarian folk activism. That critique raises important questions, but it’s a topic for another day.]

I aim to consider three aspects to this issue in three separate blog posts. In the current blog post, I consider the extent to which libertarians do advocate for open borders, relative to many other libertarian causes (my conclusion: not much). In the next blog post [UPDATE: now available], I will consider how much energy I think libertarians should devote to open borders (my conclusion: probably more than they currently do). In my third blog post, I will consider the reasons behind what I perceive as the under-supply of open borders advocacy from libertarians.

The bloggers and writers in the pro-open borders people list are some of the most prolific writers on the subject of open borders. It would be reasonable to assume that the proportion of their writing efforts that they devote to open borders is an upper bound on the proportion devoted by libertarian bloggers and writers in general.

Let’s begin by looking at Bryan Caplan. Continue reading “Open borders and the libertarian priority list: part 1” »

Is Immigration the Best Way to Fight Crime?

I just came across this report from the Immigration Policy Center in 2008.

Numerous studies by independent researchers and government commissions over the past 100 years repeatedly and consistently have found that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or be behind bars than the nativeborn. In the early decades of the 20th century, during the previous era of large-scale immigration, various federal commissions found lower levels of crime among the foreign-born than the native-born. More recently, the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform reached a similar conclusion in a 1994 report, as have academic researchers using data from the 1980, 1990, and 2000 Census; the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health; and the results of community studies in Chicago, San Diego, El Paso, and Miami.

The problem of crime in the United States is not “caused” or even aggravated by immigrants, regardless of their legal status. This is hardly surprising since immigrants come to the United States to pursue economic and educational opportunities not available in their home countries and to build better lives for themselves and their families. As a result, they have little to gain and much to lose by breaking the law. Undocumented immigrants in particular have even more reason to not run afoul of the law given the risk of deportation that their lack of legal status entails.


In 2000, among men age 18-39 (who comprise the vast majority of the U.S. prison population), the incarceration rate for the native-born (3.5%) was five times higher than the rate for immigrants (0.7%).


In stereotyping immigrants as criminals, some anti-immigrant activists have pointed to estimates by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) that one quarter of all federal prisoners in the United States are “criminal aliens.”

However, these estimates are highly misleading for two reasons:

Only about 8% of the 2.2 million persons behind bars in the United States at the end of 2005 were in federal prisons. The majority of inmates are in state prisons (57%) or local jails (34%).

Undocumented immigrants are likely to be transferred into the much smaller federal prison system simply on the basis of their immigration status even if they have not committed a criminal offense, or have committed an offense that is relatively minor.

I still think that completely open borders probably would cause a spike in crime. Immigration => poverty => crime is the chain of causation in my mind. That’s one of the only arguments against open borders that’s at all creditable, even if there’s no real evidence for it; crude theories are sometimes right, and sometimes the best guides we have to guess the effects of policies that step well outside the range of experience. I still support open borders, of course, but I think crime risks are a good reason to open the borders carefully and in a somewhat gradual manner. But we should always bear in mind that nothing remotely like an immigration-induced crime wave has actually happened. On the contrary, immigrants are more law-abiding than natives. The easiest way to keep crime down is probably to let in a few more of these law-abiding foreigners to restrain unruly natives.

UPDATE: I had planned to make this a simple “utility” post with a link to an interesting study, but I’m afraid I added more verbiage than I planned, and may have caused confusion. The last statement “let in a few more of these law-abiding foreigners to restrain unruly natives” may have come across as flippant. It actually conflates an obvious point with a more subtle, speculative point. The obvious point is that if immigrants have lower crime rates than natives, they’ll bring down average crime rates even if they don’t affect crime rates among natives. In that case, though, one couldn’t say except as a joke that they were “restraining unruly natives.” Continue reading “Is Immigration the Best Way to Fight Crime?” »