An interesting piece of anonymous feedback

A few months ago, Open Borders got an interesting piece of anonymous feedback from somebody who’d filled the effect on you survey. I’ll quote the feedback in full, with minor spelling and grammar fixes and some links added.

It actually didn’t change my mind in any way. The great effect was caused by reading Econlog, where Bryan Caplan recommended Michal Clemens’ article. When I first came here, I was already convinced that open borders was by far the most important issue in the world agenda. I do think, however, that the blog has many powerful arguments which I try to convey to other people, which is the main reason I am a regular reader.

I would like to use this space to make a topic suggestion: a discussion about economists priorities, bearing in mind the recent Economics Nobel Prize to Roth and Shapley. The last Nobel Prize is being regarded as one which was awarded for real impact in the world. Although I think that is the best standard for a Nobel Prize award, I disagree that the work of Roth and Shapley meet this standard. However important the facilitation of kidney transplants may be, and it indeed is important, it bears no comparison to doubling the world gdp. That made me think about how inefficiently economics, which is supposed to be the science of allocating scarce resources, allocates its scarce resources. It has been almost a year since a respected economist wrote that opening borders might double world gdp. There hasn’t been any reaction near to proportional. When it was reported that neutrinos might have traveled faster than the speed of light, all newspapers in the world had extensive coverage. The scientific community rapidly reacted, doubting it could be possible. With regard to migration, most economists never cared to address the paper. My suggestion, then, is this: you should not focus on converting non-influential people to the cause of open borders. You should focus on making economists speak about migration. Maybe post report cards of every economics blogger you can find on his/her stance on migration. If I were doing it, I wouldn’t even address whether or not the blogger supported open borders or not, but whether or not he gave proper attention to the issue. These people, like everyone else, are vain, and probably will read what you say about them. If they respond, their readers will become acquainted with your compelling case. Thank you very much.

Some thoughts on this:

I broadly agree with the fact that it’s disappointing that few economists, even labor economists, devote their energies to studying the global impact of migration. Despite the fact that there is an economist consensus in favor of at least somewhat expanded migration, there is not much interest in the empirics of radically more open borders than the status quo. Often, the energies of economists who study migration are devoted to more narrow questions, such as whether immigrants suppress the wages of natives, framed and addressed using an analytical nationalist perspective. In his paper (linked above), Michael Clemens suggested an agenda for research into migration that would be focused on people rather than statistical categories such as nations, and that would pay more attention to the overall effects of migration both as immigration and emigration. Clemens has co-authored papers on the place premium and income per natural, which are good conceptual tools for understanding migration. In his recent open borders autobiography, Bryan Caplan wrote about how both his undergraduate education and his graduate school training failed to convey to him the magnitude of the economic impact of immigration restrictions:

By the time I started my undergraduate education at UC Berkeley, then, I was a staunch yet shallow devotee of free immigration. I simply lacked the knowledge base to understand the magnitude of the issue. My subsequent coursework did nothing to alleviate my ignorance.

After finishing at Berkeley, I moved on to Princeton’s Ph.D. economics program. Although Princeton is known for its labor economics group, I learned virtually nothing about immigration from the Princeton faculty – or my fellow students. The budding labor economists were far more interested in estimating the effects of education on earnings than the effect of immigration restrictions on global prosperity.

Adam Ozimek also made the same point in the context of economics bloggers in a blog post on Forbes, to which my co-blogger Nathan Smith responded.

Although I personally haven’t discussed economists’ lack of focus on migration, I have dealt with a related issue: libertarians’ lack of focus on open borders advocacy (see part 1 and part 2 of my planned three-post series on the subject).

So I’m already quite sympathetic to this piece of feedback.

The suggestion to create “economist report card” suggestion is an interesting one, and one that Open Borders might pursue at some point in time, but we don’t quite have the manpower yet. But perhaps some other enterprising individual or group could do this, or point to a simple way of doing this.

The parallel with Roth and Shapley’s Nobel Prize on kidney donations is also interesting. As my co-blogger John Lee has pointed out in private correspondence, bans on legal sales of kidneys, just like immigration restrictions, prevent people around the world from engaging in mutually beneficial win-win transactions that save lives. Roth and Shapley figured out an innovative partial workaround that would help some kidney donors match some kidney recipients. Perhaps there is an economist, entrepreneur, or philanthropist who will similarly find more creative workarounds to help undo part of the damage caused by immigration restrictions, and will be admired in a later era for his or her contribution to humanity.

Should we call them “undocumented immigrants”?

We’ve given some thought to nomenclature for illegal immigrants on this site, but there are some salient points which ought to be made from an open borders advocacy standpoint. Personally, I don’t have a problem with most terms normally used for illegal immigrants, other than simply calling them “illegals” or “criminals” (which for I hope obvious reasons seems dehumanising; the term “criminal”, at least under US law, is actually completely erroneous, though it may be technically accurate elsewhere). But on reflection, I do think there are reasons to prefer a term like “undocumented immigrant” and to shy away from “illegal immigrant” — not necessarily from a standpoint of morality or dignity, but more from simply taking the right and fair rhetorical approach. Many immigrant rights activists have a questionable stance on open borders. But in using the term “undocumented immigrant”, they are not overly favouring their side, but rather adopting a term that most law and order-abiding folks, regardless of their stance on illegal immigration, should be fine using.

This is an area where I think open borders and immigrant rights groups should be able to share common ground. Indeed, I would say that given the way immigrant rights groups interpret this term, it’s incredibly pro-open borders of them, because they don’t buy into the common narrative that the problem with “illegal immigration” is entirely with the immigrant, instead of the legal system sharing some blame. From an immigrant rights or open borders standpoint, the issue at stake is that the immigrant did not properly document their arrival with the authorities. Even if you don’t go through the standard legal channels, your breaking the law need not define you any more than a speeding driver’s breaking the law ought to define them; what defines you is that you consequently don’t have the legal documentation or approval you might want or need to go about your business.

At the same time, “undocumented immigrant” does not preclude the possibility of blame attaching to the immigrant himself. Especially in the US, but in many other countries too, immigration is a matter of administrative law, not criminal or civil law. If you don’t pay your taxes, you are not an illegal earner; you are a tax evader. It may seem overly pleasant to refer to an undocumented immigrant as such, when they have no doubt broken the law. But to do otherwise strikes me as equivalent to going out of one’s way to find the most vicious term possible to describe someone driving without  insurance or a valid licence. We describe such drivers as unlicensed or uninsured, not as illegals. Moreover, the typical undocumented immigrant poses less of a threat to life and property than the typical unlicensed or uninsured driver!

The adjective “undocumented” is fairer to both the cases for and against more immigration by keeping the possibility open that the legal system shares some fault for what has happened. This language declares that what’s wrong is not that someone chose to immigrate — it’s that someone chose to immigrate, but couldn’t or didn’t obtain the appropriate papers to do so. “Illegal driver” would after all imply that driving by itself can be an illegal act — but it is not the act of driving that is illegal any more than the act of immigrating is. It is the act of doing so without the proper papers that is the problem — and this can be the fault of the person who breaks the law, or the fault of the law for making it impractical to comply. “Undocumented immigrant” is significantly more agnostic about the legal process for immigration than the term “illegal immigrant” — and rightly so, I dare say.

After all, the legal processes for immigration in most countries mean that most people around the world, no matter how much they may be acting in good faith, have near zero legal chance of immigrating via lawful channels to the country of their choice. In many cases, they have almost just as little chance of even visiting or studying in the countries they would like to. The workings of the legal processes for immigration in many countries are opaque, arbitrary, and absurd; it’s not hard to find examples of contradictory instructions from immigration bureaucracies, or “obvious” good-faith immigrants (like a white girl from the UK who grew up in the US) facing deportation proceedings. One recent change in US immigration law allows certain people who are already entitled to a US visa to apply for it without leaving the country — prior to this change, roughly half of those who left and applied for it got it quickly, while the other half faced waits measured in years.

For this reason, to focus on the term “illegal” when discussing such immigrants is to I think prevent the attachment of any blame or fault to the legal system, even though a very reasonable case may exist for such blame. Even a good deal of people who complain about illegal immigration focus on the fact that undocumented immigrants immigrated unlawfully — it’s not the act of immigration by itself that they take issue with. But the term “illegal immigrant” favours the presumption that this is mostly or entirely that immigrant’s fault for not “waiting their turn” or what have you. It implicitly assumes there is no chance the legal system could share some blame, for failing to offer such immigrants practicable legal avenues to cross the border. The term “undocumented immigrant” is more agnostic about who might get the blame.

Because it is agnostic, “undocumented immigrant” is a more favourable rhetorical term for open borders advocates. After all, “illegal immigrant” favours a presumption that there is (and perhaps ought to be) no legal right for such immigrant to be here, and that any authorisation such immigrant receives is a gift at the behest of the natives or authorities. “Undocumented immigrant” does not militate against any such presumption that a right to migrate might exist. “Undocumented immigrant” reminds us that the focus ought to be on the immigrant’s entry not being appropriately documented by the authorities as required by law — and that how we apportion blame for this between the immigrant and the legal system is a subjective question.

I don’t object to the term “illegal immigrant” on grounds of morality or dignity, but I do think it has a tendency to lower the societal status of undocumented immigrants relative to how society actually views them. Thomas Sowell approves of the view that “undocumented immigrant” is about as appropriate a term as “unlicensed pharmacist” would be for a drug dealer. This neat analogy is not nearly so neat as it first appears — something I plan to briefly discuss in a future post. But for now, open borders advocates and those looking for a less-charged term to discuss illegal immigration might remember that undocumented immigrant is no less an appropriate — and actually, I would contend, a far more appropriate — term than illegal immigrant.

Open Borders Questionnare: Nathan Smith’s answers

This post is intended to initiate a “tournament” in which regular bloggers at Open Borders: The Case as well as guest bloggers will answer a brief but challenging questionnaire. Unsolicited submissions will be considered for publication, and not only from those of the pro-open-borders persuasion, though they should meet the high standards of rigor, with regards to facts, logic, and moral sincerity, which Open Borders: The Case tries to maintain. There is no particular time limit for submissions, which will be posted as they are received/approved.

The questions are:

1. How might the world move to open borders? Describe the most realistic process by which we might get from here to there over the next thirty to fifty years. What are the odds of this happening? And by the way, clarify what you mean by open borders.

2. Are you in favor of open borders? Why or why not?

3. How do you think open borders would affect people currently living in developing countries?

4. And how do you think developed countries would be affected by open borders?

5. What are the political ramifications of open borders, e.g., for national sovereignty, social solidarity, and global governance?

6. What is the meta-ethical standpoint from which you evaluate the issue of open borders?

Think about how you would answer these questions. Here are my answers.

1. How might the world move to open borders? Describe the most realistic process by which we might get from here to there over the next thirty to fifty years. What are the odds of this happening? And by the way, clarify what you mean by open borders.

I envision a convergence of several processes. Though for convenience I’ll sometimes use the future tense in the projections below, I’d actually place the odds that we’ll get to (approximate) open borders in the next half-century at no better than 20% or so. I’d say it’s more likely than not that at least some of the trends below will cause immigration laws to be somewhat more open, and immigration restrictions to be seen as somewhat less morally legitimate. By “open borders,” I mean that a large majority of people will be able to move at will to a large majority of places, weighted by area, GDP, or population, to live and work, subject at most to slight fees ex ante and modest surtaxes ex post, and enjoying ordinary protection of their rights– but I do not include protection against private discrimination under this heading– upon arrival. Continue reading “Open Borders Questionnare: Nathan Smith’s answers” »

My Path to Open Borders

This is a guest post by Bryan Caplan, one of the most influential voices in the economics blogosphere supportive of open borders. Caplan was a major inspiration for the creation of the Open Borders site and his blog, EconLog, was also an important recruiting ground for like-minded open borders advocates. In this blog post, Caplan describes his personal journey towards open borders.

In the subculture of economics blogs, I’m well-known as a champion of open borders. If you want to hear my reasons, read my “Why Should We Restrict Immigration?” and philosopher Michael Huemer’s “Is There a Right to Immigrate?” If you want to discover how I personally came to embrace my contrarian position, though, read on.

Until I was seventeen, my views on immigration were completely conventional. In 11th grade, I wrote a paper defending the “moderate” view that (a) contemporary levels of immigration were good for America, but (b) immigrants should have to learn English. As far as I remember, I didn’t discuss illegal immigration one way or the other. If you asked me about illegal immigration, I probably would have reflexively said, “I’m against it,” perhaps adding, “Well, illegals do a lot of jobs that Americans won’t.”

Growing up in Northridge – a suburb of Los Angeles – I had a lot of casual contact with immigrants. Starting in 5th grade, busing brought many low-income kids to my schools. About 60% were black, 40% Hispanic. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but many of the Hispanic students’ parents – and probably quite a few of the Hispanic students themselves – were illegal immigrants. Starting in junior high, my schools also had a fairly high number of Korean and other Asian immigrants. Since I was in honors classes for grades 7-12, I had disproportionately low contact with Hispanic immigrants, and disproportionately high contact with Asian immigrants. Roughly half of my friends were Asian, the children or grandchildren of immigrants. The rest were white, with no living immigrant ancestors. (My own great-grandparents on both sides were immigrants from Ireland, Latvia, Poland, and Ukraine).

My parents owned a few rental properties in Los Angeles, and they occasionally hired Hispanic day laborers to help with upkeep. As far as I remember, we all knew that these day laborers were illegal immigrants. But business was business; though they spoke little English, they worked hard. I vividly remember the day my dad hired a totally disappointing day laborer who spoke fluent English. Eventually my parents concluded that he was a U.S. citizen trying to pose as a hard-working illegal!

I changed my mind about proper immigration policy in my senior year of high school. The impetus, as usual for me, was not first-hand experience, but abstract argument. After reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, I became a vociferous libertarian. Given this orientation, I converted to open borders as soon as another libertarian pointed out that free immigration is just free trade applied to labor. If memory serves, Murray Rothbard’s Power and Market, chapter 3, section E was the pivotal discussion for me.

Still, I was too factually ignorant to grasp the enormity of the issue. I saw no reason to take immigration restrictions more seriously than, say, steel tariffs. I didn’t realize that immigration restrictions are far more onerous than trade barriers on steel. I falsely assumed that illegal immigration to the U.S. was pretty easy. I didn’t realize that the labor market is by far the largest market in the world – roughly 70% of national income. I didn’t realize that immigration restrictions trap hundreds of millions of people in Third World poverty.

The corollary, of course, is that I didn’t realize that open borders would drastically change every aspect of our society. Basic economics says that free immigration would drastically increase global wealth and drastically reduce global inequality. But basic psychology says that visibility of the remaining poverty and inequality would sharply rise. (The sobering implication is that even if open borders works as well as I expect, many First Worlders will angrily call it a disaster).

Given my ignorance, I was able to intellectually embrace open borders without taking the issue seriously. In high school and college, I spent far more time debating epistemology than immigration. When I tried to convert others to open borders, my main empirical argument was to point to America’s experience with virtually open borders in the 19th century. If free immigration was great then, why not now?

When critics pointed to the existence of the modern welfare state, I was dismissive: “Yet another reason to abolish the welfare state!” Murray Rothbard in particular inoculated me against all arguments of the form, “We can’t repeal X until we repeal Y.” He was outraged when Libertarian Party candidate Ed Clark opposed open borders during the 1980 presidential campaign:

[Clark] has already asserted that we can’t slash the welfare state until we have achieved “full employment”; he now adds that we can’t have free and open immigration until we eliminate the welfare state.  And so it goes; the “gradualists” lock us permanently into the status quo of statism.i

By the time I started my undergraduate education at UC Berkeley, then, I was a staunch yet shallow devotee of free immigration. I simply lacked the knowledge base to understand the magnitude of the issue. Continue reading “My Path to Open Borders” »

Innovation and open borders

It has sometimes been argued that mass immigration slows technological progress, by reducing pressure to automate and mechanize production process. I agree that open borders would probably result in less automation, and the substitution of labor for capital for many functions. But I highly doubt that there would be a slowdown in technological progress.

First of all, the argument that (a) immigration leads to (b) labor abundance and (c) less automation applies to rich countries only. In poor countries, the opposite would apply. Open borders would make labor scarcer there. So if high labor costs drive technological change, then open borders should slow technological change in rich countries while accelerating it in poor countries. At a global level, the effect would be ambiguous.

Second, the notion that we should deliberately make labor scarce in order to accelerate technological change has some strange implications. It’s not just through migration that companies take advantage of cheap labor. They also outsource production to poor countries and import the goods they make there. That also reduces the incentive to automate. If we want to promote technological change through artificial labor scarcity, we should not only restrict migration, but also trade. Indeed, we ought to regard generous welfare programs that induce cultures of dependency on the government as a good thing, because they reduce the supply of labor and thus motivate automation.

More fundamentally, the argument misunderstands the nature of technological change. Mark Krikorian writes (as quoted in the link above): “The entire history of economic development— starting with the first ape-man to pick up a stick—is a story of increasing the productivity of labor, so each worker is able to create more and more output. But capital will be substituted for labor only when the price of labor rises…” Not exactly. Krikorian is conflating capital-intensiveness with technological progress. They are not the same.

Technological progress involves creating useful new ideas about how to capture natural phenomena for human ends. Expansion of the stock of such ideas is technological progress in the pure sense. For any given state of technology, that is, for any given stock of technological ideas, there will be many methods of satisfying various human needs, some more labor-intensive, some more capital-intensive. Technological progress is presumptively good as long as peace is maintained. There is no downside to having more options about what to do and how to do it. Capital-intensiveness, by contrast, is costly. To adopt more capital-intensive production methods requires a permanently higher investment rate, which cuts into consumption.

Nor does technological progress always involve replacing labor with capital. Sometimes technology progresses precisely by economizing on human capital. Henry Ford’s assembly line did make auto production more capital-intensive, but more importantly, it allowed auto production to be carried out by unskilled workers and even untrustworthy workers. A worker on an assembly line needs to learn only one very simple skill, has no opportunity to shirk, and is in effect supervised by his fellow employees. This is such an important example that it almost suffices by itself to prove the point, that technology may create ways to economize on human capital. Still, I’ll provide a few more. Calculators and computers make it possible for people to do rather advanced math who don’t understand the principles of advanced math. Automatic is easier to drive than manual/stickshift. It takes less skill to drive a car than to ride a horse. Google Navigation reduces the map knowledge needed to be a taxi driver. Cheap mass-produced clothing makes the skill of sewing largely dispensable. Rice makers, bread makers, microwave meals and so on reduce the skills needed to cook for oneself.

Krikorian is right that a rising price of labor and technological progress have been correlated, but the causation runs mainly the other way: new technology drives up wages. Whether there is an important causal link the other way, from a rising price of labor to new technology as opposed to merely greater reliance on capital, is open to doubt.

And if Krikorian can claim that labor scarcity is a driver of technological change, I have just as good grounds for asserting that mass markets are a driver of technological change. Much of the history of economic development consists of things that were once luxuries for the rich being made much cheaper so that they become commodities for the masses. Cars, airplane travel, climate control, artificial illumination, comfortable cotton clothing, and cell phones, just to name a few, were once expensive luxuries for the rich, but capitalism delivered them to everyman. Ford’s business model depended on having a huge market whose needs couldn’t be served by the expensive modes of production that were previously available.

And so it doesn’t surprise me that the golden age of US productivity growth seems to have followed peak immigration with a lag, accelerating in the late 19th century and peaking in the 1920s and 1930s, before a long, gradual slowdown as the task of absorbing immigrants waned. For the same reason, I would look for benefits from open borders as a mass market of relatively poor people spurred a new wave of mass production and frugal innovation. An influx of 150 million poor immigrants to the United States, assuming they could be excluded from the welfare state, would lead to companies falling over each other in their rush to deliver health care, education, housing, food, transportation, and entertainment to these teeming masses in novel ways and at knock-down prices.

Finally, as Matt Ridley says, “ideas have sex.” (Actually, I have arcane philosophical objections to that catchphrase, but never mind them for now). Immigrants are disproportionately entrepreneurial, as this book stresses.) One reason for that, I think, is that coming from somewhere else, they start with a stock of ideas that natives don’t have. These combine with what they learn upon arrival to yield new ideas, some of them commercially fruitful. Cuisine is only the most obvious example of how cross-cultural hybridization of ideas raises living standards: one can dine better in a place where many immigrant chefs have opened restaurants. Aside from the benefits of new ideas, immigrants who expand their opportunities by moving to more prosperous and institutionally developed countries will frequently be able to implement good ideas they couldn’t have implemented at home even if they had been able to think of them there. For all these reasons, I see a strong case that open borders will foster innovation.