Immigrants are Important for Disaster Reconstruction

This piece was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reproduced with permission from the author.

Hurricane Sandy walloped the East Coast yesterday. The strongest part of the storm focused its wrath on coastal cities, ravaging New York, Atlantic City, Ocean City, and others in the storm’s path. In the coming days, focus will turn from rescuing people to rebuilding the devastated areas.

Immigrant workers, especially in the building trades, are an essential component of any reconstruction. People living in places hit by Sandy are going to demand an influx of laborers to rebuild and replace their destroyed property.

During and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, hundreds of thousands of people from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama left their homes behind. For many from New Orleans, Houston became their new home. In contrast, around 100,000 immigrant workers quickly moved into the Gulf Coast area to take advantage of the labor market opportunities offered by the reconstruction in the aftermath of Katrina.

Many Americans also moved into the Gulf Coast region to rebuild with the immigrants. But in the year prior to Hurricane Katrina, Hispanic immigrant workers accounted for about 40 percent of the total growth in the construction sector-–the majority of whom were unauthorized immigrants. A year after the rebuilding began in New Orleans, an estimated quarter of all construction workers were unauthorized immigrants.

A tornado in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in April 2011 left 43 dead and tore a path almost a mile wide through the city. Immigrant Hispanic workers in Alabama responded with alacrity. “Hispanics, documented and undocumented, dominate anything to do with masonry, concrete, framing, roofing, and landscaping,” said Bob McNelly, a contractor with Nash-McCraw Properties. Three months after the tornado, Tuscaloosa issued 1069 business licenses with 81 percent of them related to businesses repairing storm damaged.

There is no economic silver lining to a disaster, despite what The New York Times thinks, but fortunately there is a mobile workforce capable of responding to natural disasters to aid in reconstruction. After dealing with the Tuscaloosa reconstruction, McNelly said that he prefers Hispanic immigrants workers. “It’s not the pay rate. It’s the fact that they work harder than anyone. It’s the work ethic,” he said.

Immigrant workers are the economic early responders to natural disasters. They are typically younger so they do not own houses and mortgages tying them down to certain areas. As a result, they move quickly based on labor market demands allowing reconstruction to start quicker and complete faster. Immigrant workers, mostly Hispanics in the building trades, will flock along with others to the areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy. As in previous natural disasters, they will be an important component of any rebuilding.

“Only high IQ immigrants” fails to understand comparative advantage

OK, it’s time to give some strong back talk to this meme of “only high IQ immigration is good” which we’re getting in the comments. The simple rebuttal to “only high IQ immigration is good” is that this fails to understand comparative advantage and commits the maximize the average fallacy. But in a recent post, Vipul partially defends the high-IQ-only preference:

Not so fast, restrictionists would say. As Richard Hoste puts it, the comparative advantage argument works in the context of pure economics, but once we bring in crime and political externalities, it starts to falter. If crime rates go up, then your chance of being a crime victim goes up, all else equal (there are caveats to be added, but I’m using a simplistic picture of crime). Comparative advantage doesn’t come to the rescue here. And if low IQ means voting for bad policies (something that’s supported by Caplan’s research) then low IQ immigration would lead to negative political externalities.

So, I don’t think the comparative advantage argument is quite the right way to tackle the IQ deficit concern. So what is? I think we need to step back a bit and be clearer about how IQ matters to the moral and practical considerations that come up with respect to immigration and its effect on natives and immigrants. Does IQ matter in and of itself (as some indication of moral worth or desert), or does it matter because of its correlation with things like crime or political beliefs or social capital or what-have-you? It’s only the rare IQ elitist who argues that IQ is morally significant in and of itself. Most people who believe in the importance of IQ believe in it because it’s correlated with a lot of other things like crime, political beliefs, etc.

Vipul goes on to argue that people who make the “only high IQ immigrants” case are double-counting the harms of low-IQ immigration, and that IQ doesn’t give an extra reason for restrictionism, once one has taken possible effects on crime and politics into account. But I think Vipul is giving the “high IQ only” restrictionists too much credit. There may be subtle externalities arguments for why low-IQ immigration is worse, though I think they’re highly tenuous and have little empirical support (I’ll come back to that). But mostly, people are just failing to understand comparative advantage.

Consider the following comment from holier then [sic: should be “than”] thou:

I will say in this case I’m In total agreement with Silicon Valley. People in Silicon Valley are supporting high IQ immigrants, often with unique skill sets. They tend to add value to the nation in the short and long runs. Also, because programming is generally a value creation, rather then value transference industry, the addition of new labor can actually increase the wages of natives. A foreigner who starts a new company adds to the demand for labor. And programming is one of the few industries where smart people with little financial capital can still become job creating entrepreneurs.


For this reason I’m far more open to the case of supporting high levels of immigration of the high IQ, especially those that have skills in key industries. However, you’ll note that this is far different from being “open borders”. Open borders, in practical real life terms, means mostly supporting the mass immigration of low IQ low skill workers who will mostly compete for the existing pie rather then increase it.

This is just economic illiteracy. A foreigner who starts a new company doesn’t necessarily add to the demand for labor. He creates a few jobs directly, but if he competes successfully with existing domestic companies, he’ll destroy jobs elsewhere. If his new company is more productive than the incumbent firms he is grabbing market share from or perhaps driving out of business, he’s likely to destroy net jobs in that industry. Not that that’s a bad thing. To think it is is to be guilty of what Bryan Caplan, in The Myth of the Rational Voter, calls “make-work bias.” Productivity increases tend to hurt workers in particular industries while making consumers and investors better off. And the workers may not be harmed either in the long run, as the market recycles them into other industries. But there’s not much reason to think that foreign entrepreneurs are particularly likely to add net jobs to the economy.

Meanwhile, low-skilled immigrants can also create jobs. Suppose a lot of low-skilled immigrants come and are willing to work in restaurants for low wages. They don’t have the business skills to run restaurants, but they can wait tables and slice carrots and man the cash register. Meanwhile, a lot of hungry people in a hurry would be happy to pay $5 or $10 or $15 for a meal cooked by someone else, rather than having to do it themselves. Native-born foodies with a knack for business have an opportunity to raise some capital, set up a restaurant, hire the immigrants, while carving out a nice job for themselves running it. Of course, customers and investors benefit too. Again, I live in Fresno, and all around the city are orange orchards and vineyards. They need workers to pick the fruit. Native farmers, agronomists, irrigation engineers, etc., who have jobs in the agricultural sector depend on these workers to do the “low-skill” (it’s actually not that low-skill, I hear, but at any rate it doesn’t require much education) work that makes profits possible. Again, I work in a nice clean office building (except for the clutter on my own desk). Who keeps it clean? Not my fellow professors! We hire a janitorial service, which hires a lot of people for the low-skill work of emptying trash cans. Yes, I could take out the trash myself. But I have better things to do! Immigrants who take such tasks off my hands are “increasing the size of the pie.”

Or are these immigrants “competing for the existing pie” because other, less-skilled natives could have taken out the trash for me instead? No. That’s the wrong way of looking at it. Capitalism features competitive markets in almost every industry, but the people who are competing with each other are doing so by being productive, by creating value. To oppose “competition” to “increasing the size of the pie” is a mistake here. Some less-skilled natives probably do see their wages fall because of competition from immigrants (though even that’s controversial: less-educated natives may be able to exploit their comparative advantage in fluent English and being in the American cultural groove, and benefit from immigration just like higher-skilled natives). But if immigrant janitors do reduce the wages of native janitors, they’re still growing the pie. And the university benefits from cheaper housekeeping services.

Let me draw attention, by the way, to holier than thou‘s phrase “value transference industry.” This is not a term economists use. They don’t use it because it’s bogus. There is no phenomenon in the real world which it is sensible to refer to in this way. You could, if you liked, call theft a value transference industry, but that would be inappropriately neutral and non-judgmental. We don’t call theft “value transference,” let alone a “value transference industry,” we call it crime. Social Security might be called a value transference program, but it’s not an industry, precisely because it’s merely transferring, not creating value. It seems that holier than thou thinks the economic laws of capitalism ordain that some industries create value, others merely move it around. That’s just not how markets work. I advise holier than thou to delete this fallacious phrase from his vocabulary. Continue reading “Only high IQ immigrants” fails to understand comparative advantage

Non-Refoulement (and “Secretary Hildebrand”)

In 1077, the monk Hildebrand who had become pope and taken the name Gregory VII, excommunicated the German emperor, causing a collapse of his power, on the grounds that the latter had usurped the Church’s right to appoint, or “invest” bishops. The “investiture controversy” that followed lasted for well over a century, and ended in a sort of Pyrrhic victory for the popes, who destroyed the German imperial House of Staufen, but at the cost of empowering its rivals, especially the kings of France, who eventually took the papacy “prisoner” at Avignon. Meanwhile, the duel of pope and emperor triggered a lot of thinking and gave the Italian city-states the chance to emerge as autonomous republics in alliance with the papacy against the empire. In my view, the investiture controversy was a crucial episode in the rise of Western freedom. Prior to the mid-11th century, the papacy was weak and more often than not a pawn of either the Roman nobility or the German emperors. Hildebrand and a few colleagues were bold ideologues who spearheaded what historian Norman Cantor has called a “world revolution.”

Turning to the present, the UN is a bit like the early medieval papacy: it is weak and widely disdained, yet it has a sort of latent institutional legitimacy which could be a very powerful instrument in the right hands. A charismatic and ambitious secretary-general, with a powerful and popular ideology and a willingness to use all the material means and moral influence of his office to pursue it, could change the world. I suspect that in many areas of international law and policy, e.g., the trade regime, the international patent and copyright regime, bilateral and multilateral investment treaties, sovereign debt, travel/migration/visa regimes, and so on. There are multiple equilibria. For example, it might be in poor countries’ interests not to expropriate multinational corporations if no one else is doing it– why make oneself a pariah to the investment community?– but in their interest to do so if they could all agree to do so at the same time to punish an investment source country, at the exhortation of the UN, because they would get a reputation not as thieves but as good global citizens (while also pocketing the expropriated wealth). A brave and charismatic UN secretary-general– let’s call him Secretary Hildebrand– might give his agency teeth one of these days.

If so, one of the aspects of international law he might give teeth to is non-refoulement, the principle that it’s illegal to return a person to a country where they’re likely to suffer persecution or torture. (I approve, on natural law grounds. Knowingly to compel a person to go where they’ll be persecuted or tortured is tantamount to perpetrating persecution or torture.) A grad student, Jessica Rodger, wrote a thesis about it. I quote:

[3] During the last days of August this year, a humanitarian drama unfolded in the Indian Ocean. 433 asylum-seekers were stranded aboard a Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa, which had rescued them from a sinking Indonesian ship. They had requested refugee status from the government of Australia when they entered Australian waters, but their request had been denied. Despite pressure from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Secretary-General, and the international community in general, the Australian government stood by its decision. The crisis was only resolved when the governments of Nauru and New Zealand agreed to process the asylum-seekers, with Australia providing financial assistance and transport.1

[4] The Tampa incident brought home to many in the Asia-Pacific region a fact that those in Europe and Africa have long known. The issue of asylum-seekers and the granting of refugee status is an incredibly complex problem which the international community, as of yet, is not fully equipped to deal with. This paper will examine the international law regime which has been developed to deal with refugees. The cornerstone of this regime, and the focus of this paper, is the principle of non-refoulement. Non-refoulement is the idea that it is illegal for states to expel or return (“refouler”) refugees who have a well-founded fear of persecution. Over recent years this principle, and the refugee regime itself, has found itself increasingly under threat.

[5] An examination of some of the more recent situations of mass refugee flows, and also of the restrictive refugee policies being implemented by Western nations, will help to illustrate both the importance of the non-refoulement principle and the problems which the states themselves face when trying to live up to their international obligations.  Both states and refugees often find themselves on uncertain legal ground when attempting to invoke the non-refoulement principle. The reason for this is that the parameters of the principle are not clearly defined. This has become especially problematic recently as refugee flows have increased and states have become more reluctant to accept asylum-seekers. States are therefore using the grey areas of the non-refoulement principle to get around their international obligations.

“Secretary Hildebrand” could exert pressure for the non-refoulement principle be written into countries’ laws, and encourage countries to punish non-compliance by making their trade policies, visa policies, and investment policies unfavorable to countries guilty of non-compliance. I suspect that any UN secretary-general famous enough to be a household name worldwide would have a good chance of forcing countries to make non-refoulement a reality.

I’m proud to report that the grandfather of a friend of mine forged a lot of documents, in the aftermath of World War II, so as to save people from repatriation to Stalin’s Soviet Union, where they would have been killed, and got them into the US instead. Such people are among history’s heroes. Schoolchildren should be taught to admire them.

The nation-state is militarily obsolete

If Germany were invaded by Russia, Germans would probably trust their army of 70,000 (maybe 200,000+ deployable in all forces), with little combat experience, to attempt to defend them against the million-strong armed forces of the Russian Federation, which also has nuclear weapons. But they could hardly expect them to win. If Germany doesn’t feel threatened by Russia, that’s not because they trust Vladimir Putin, nor does it have much to do with Germany’s own armed forces. It is because they could expect aid from their much more powerful NATO allies, especially the United States, but also Britain and France, both militarily stronger than Germany, and other countries, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Portugal, etc., that don’t carry much weight individually, have a good deal of power when all are pooled together. What goes for Germany is far more true of smaller nations like Norway. Germany probably could create a military capable of fending off Russia: certainly they were able to match Russia and better in the past on the battlefield. Norway couldn’t possibly defend itself against Russia on its own, but in NATO it’s safe enough.

Is Europe a special case? Partly, though even there, it may be a special case because it is at the front end of a global trend. But there are a lot of other countries which trust to the United States, to various treaty organizations, to the United Nations, and to international norms for their protection, rather than on any merely national military. Saudi Arabia was long protected by US troops. US troops are still stationed in South Korea, providing some protection against the powerful North. US troops are stationed in Japan, and Japan’s alliance with the US is a crucial strategic asset in its duel with China over the Senkaku islands. Kuwait couldn’t defend itself against Saddam Hussein in 1991, but was liberated by a large US-led international coalition, which was concerned only partly with oil. Partly, it was concerned with a global norm of geopolitics, sometimes called “the sanctity of borders.” If Saddam violated that norm with impunity, the precedent might be followed anywhere in the world. The international community thus intervened for the sake of its own principles. At any rate, it’s clear that Kuwait doesn’t owe its independence to military solidarity among its citizens. It owes it to benevolent foreigners. And the same goes for much of the world. The UN, the US, the West, NATO, have intervened all over the world, and the implicit threat of intervention has an impact far beyond where any intervention has actually taken place. Even the mighty United States doesn’t rely only on its own strength to defend it. When the US was attacked on 9/11, not just Americans but NATO and many other allies collaborated in trying to hunt down al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Even the Iraq war, more controversial, was a coalition affair.

A world based on nation-state military self-sufficiency wouldn’t work very well. This can be seen in theory, if you think about international relations as a game with stronger and weaker players, some with a taste for predation, all living in mutual fear. Strong nation-states could prey on weaker nation-states at little cost. A “balance of power” might sometimes emerge, but as the strength of nation-states varied over time, states would often weaken to the point where they were unable to defend themselves, thus inviting attack by neighbors, either interested in predation, or taking the opportunity to destroy an enemy in its moment of weakness. On the other hand, weak states might gang up on strong states. There is no reason to expect stability in such a system. We shouldn’t expect nation-state military self-sufficiency to lead to peace or security for anyone. And if we look at history, it doesn’t. In particular, the early 20th century was a time of great wars in Europe, and it was precisely at that time that the pursuit of national interest was most unapologetic and unrestrained by other principles. Britain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich, which was as disastrous as it was unprincipled, taught the world the lesson that to look out merely for narrow national interests is asking for trouble. If you let the bad guys do bad things far away, not only is that cowardly and ungenerous, but it’s stupid because they just gain momentum and are much more powerful by the time they’re coming after you. After World War II, “collective security” became the norm. Most nations delegated most of the job of security upwards, to regional or global organizations, and even the United States supplied the backbone of the regional and global organizations and made itself “leader of the free world,” rather than simply fending for itself. The nation-state became militarily obsolete. Soldiers are still recruited and commanded by national governments, but they almost always work in coalition with each other and usually far away from their national borders, aiding allies rather than defending the homeland.

Why am I stating the obvious here, and what does this have to do with open borders? Well, I’m responding to the argument that Steve Sailer has made for citizenism in this post: Continue reading The nation-state is militarily obsolete

Citizenism versus collective property rights, and voters versus representatives

The term citizenism has been much in vogue lately. Sonic Charmer’s blog post I, Citizenist started the trend. My co-blogger Nathan wrote two blog posts on citizenism, one on the citizenist case for open borders and the other on Christianity vs. citizenism. I think co-blogger John Lee also has much to say on citizenism, though (as of now) he hasn’t published his thoughts on citizenism.

However, lest the term “citizenism” get bandied about too loosely, I want to clarify exactly what is meant by the term. The term “citizenism” was first introduced by Steve Sailer. References to and quotes from his writings on the subject are at the citizenism page. Here, I wish to highlight several different aspects of citizenism which are substantiated by quotes from Sailer:

  1. Citizenism places substantially greater weight on the rights and interests of citizens than non-citizens, though, as Nathan pointed out, it operates within moral side-constraints.
  2. Citizenism is about current citizens, not about the people who may become citizens as a result of immigration or deportation policy. Thus, unlike other forms of “analytical nationalism,” it is relatively immune to compositional effects paradoxes. For instance, if a new person were to join the country and earn a below-average income, but were to boost the incomes of all natives, a citizenist would have no problem with this at least from the income angle, but a “maximize-the-average” analytical nationalist would have a problem. On the other hand, a citizenist would object to the deportation of a current citizen with below-average income, despite the effect this may have on raising the national average. Thus, citizenists can calmly refute point (3) in Bryan Caplan’s list of questions in his Vronsky syndrome blog post.
  3. Citizenism, as conceived by Sailer, is both about the individual ethics of voters and about the responsibilities of elected representatives. Sailer is not merely arguing that governments should concern themselves only with the welfare of citizens. He is arguing that citizens, qua citizens, should be concerned primarily about the welfare of their fellow citizens. I am not sure if Sailer would go further and argue that citizens have a duty to favor the interests of fellow citizens even in their private lives, but it certainly seems like he would admire such behavior.
  4. Citizenism is about loyalty, not admiration, toward one’s fellow citizens. A citizenist does not claim that his/her fellow citizens are the world’s best, but simply defends their interests. I think of it as nationalism without romance. As Sailer puts it, a citizenist looks at his less-than-ideal fellow citizen and says, “he’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

I think Sonic Charmer, and most other “moderate” citizenists, would have no trouble signing on to (1) and (2). (3) seems to me the most controversial, and Sonic Charmer’s logic for why governments should be citizenist does not (to me) seem to imply (3). My co-blogger Nathan seems to have most of his issues with (3), not with (1) or (2), as he writes in his most recent blog post:

[T]here is a difference between citizenism as a personal meta-ethics and citizenism as a political meta-ethics. Sorry for the jargon. What I mean is that there’s a difference between saying (a) “I only care about Americans” and (b) saying “The government should only care about Americans,” and while (a) is definitely un-Christian, (b) might not be. Someone who believed the US government should help Americans and put near-zero weight on foreigners’ interests, but who thought Americans as individuals are obligated to be generous to foreigners as well, and who is personally very generous, would probably not imperil her soul much by her political attitude, even if she is mistaken.

I want to explain a bit more about why I consider (3) to be particularly significant. To do this, I want to distinguish citizenism from another related idea thrown around by opponents of open borders: the idea of collective property rights. Collective property rights simply asserts that a nation-state has the moral authority to arbitrarily deny non-citizens entry, because the nation-state, as a representative of the people, has property rights over the land, particularly the publicly owned parts of the land (there is a variant of this logic, called the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual). I won’t attempt to rebut this logic here — the collective property rights page discusses various rebuttals. Rather, my goal here is to highlight the differences between collective property rights and citizenism.

Collective property rights is simply an assertion that the nation-state, via its elected government, can deny non-citizens entry. Claims of collective property rights do not, in and of themselves, offer any guidance on when and how these rights should be exercised. Continue reading Citizenism versus collective property rights, and voters versus representatives