Are the linguistic externalities of open borders important?

One of the most obvious, automatic arguments against open borders is that people won’t be able to understand each other. “They don’t speak English,” is one of the knee-jerk complaints about (some) immigrants. People will tell anecdotes about how they went into the grocery store and wanted to ask where the soup was, and the employees couldn’t help them because they were only Spanish-speaking. I don’t think I’ve seen the movie  Now, as our linguistic assimilation page points out:

To the extent that the problem [of the failure of linguistic assimilation] is genuine, a keyhole solution to it is to impose linguistic and cultural fluency requirements as a precondition for migration.

And a billion people or more speak English, so that still opens up a huge amount of immigration. Of course, more would learn. But let’s set that aside for the moment. Suppose we’re thinking about the immigration of non-English speakers.

Let me respond first of all to the supermarket anecdote. The supermarket could presumably hire English-speaking employees. The supermarket would presumably have to pay more to English-speaking employees, reflecting their greater economic value and the greater opportunity cost of their time. The supermarket would pass through the costs associated with their higher wage bill to customers. So customers face a trade-off: English-speaking staff, or higher prices. The question is not, would you rather have English-speaking staff in the grocery store, but, is it worth it to pay 1% or 5% or whatever more for your groceries to have English-speaking staff? If most customers think it is worth it, the supermarket, to remain competitive and maximize profits, would presumably give customers what they want by raising prices and hiring English-speaking staff. So, the fact that the supermarket has hired non-English-speaking staff is evidence that most customers prefer lower prices. Maybe you’re not most customers. Maybe you’d be willing to pay 5% extra for your groceries so that the supermarket staff would be able to tell you where the soup is in English. But why should the government use force to make your preferences prevail over other consumers’ preferences? Notice, by the way, that the conflict is not, for the most part, between English-speakers and non-English-speakers, but among English-speakers with difference preferences over grocery prices versus ease of communication with supermarket staff.

Moreover, the customer who wants English-speaking help may not have to do more than drive down the street to a different grocery store. Typically, free -market capitalism offers a wide variety of goods and services, catering to all tastes, and even minority and niche markets get served. It’s quite possible that the customer who complains about the non-English-speaking staff is actually, at the same time, revealing his preference for non-English-speaking staff plus low prices, by shopping at the supermarket that employs them when other supermarkets, who insist on good English, are available, albeit they charge more. In that sense, it’s improper to regard the lack of linguistic assimilation as a downside of open borders at all. I should be careful not to exaggerate here. Real world markets are imperfect, and the rough-and-tumble of markets probably will see some consumers’ welfare fall, more or less randomly, because of the interaction of these imperfections with their preferences. If you live in a small town with only a few shops, the arrival of immigrants really might deprive you of your preferred shopping environment as other people’s preferences create a new, less English-speaking equilibrium. In the same way, if white hats become fashionable, black hat lovers may suffer as stores don’t bother to carry the unpopular item. But such effects will be small, and society as a whole will enjoy gains from trade with immigrants.

A certain misunderstanding is worth guarding against at this point. Suppose we compare two worlds, in the first of which a country’s 300 million people speak a few dozen languages and have no language in common, whereas in the second, the country’s 300 million people speak those few dozen languages plus they all speak another language which is the common language of the country. Clearly the second situation is better. But that’s simply because the second country has been given, ex hypothesi, a large endowment of extra human capital. In reality, there is an opportunity cost to acquiring human capital. So this is the wrong thought experiment with which to evaluate the effects of open borders.

The starting point of an economic analysis of the effects of linguistic diversity must be that (a) linguistic human capital is valuable, but (b) immigrants who come to a country despite their lack of the appropriate linguistic human capital reveal that they gain thereby, and (c) natives who do business with immigrants despite their lack of the appropriate linguistic human capital reveal that they gain thereby. Markets and prices should accurately value linguistic human capital, and should efficiently resolve the question of whether it is worth it for this or that non-speaker of a country’s dominant language to immigrate or not. The only case which is definitely an exception to this market efficiency argument is when people use language for non-market cooperation, e.g., when you go up to a stranger on the street and ask him for the time, or for directions.

Now, being able to ask strangers for directions and rely, not on getting them since they might not be able or willing to help, but at least on having a common language, certainly has some economic value. The inconvenience of asking two or three people for directions and finding that they are non-English speakers, thus wasting one’s own time and theirs, is certainly a negative externality likely to be associated with open borders. Given the rarity of the event in question, however, I am inclined to rate the importance of the negative linguistic externalities of open borders as low to the point of being trivial. But since this argument pops up again and again, am I, perhaps, missing something? Are the negative externalities of lacking a common language somehow much more important than I suppose? Why? How could this be measured?

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

2 thoughts on “Are the linguistic externalities of open borders important?”

  1. To answer the final questions of the final paragraph of this blog entry, I will suggest that some people resent even minor inconveniences that are created by “outsiders”. This is especially true if those outsiders are illegal/undocumented/unlawfully-present migrants, because then the inconvenience seems to be wrongfully imposed.

    If many of the migrants speak the same language (e.g. Spanish in the USA), then that creates fear that the existing population will feel pressure to learn that new language (a major undertaking for your average monolingual person). Job seekers might fear that they will be at a disadvantage compared to competitors who were fortunate enough to grow up speaking both languages (the best way to gain true fluency).

    Some people simply focus on the extra money that corporations and governments spend to accommodate multiple languages.

    In summary, most people don’t analyze things in economic terms, as you do.

    You mention “linguistic human capital” and that reminded me of an idea I’ve been thinking about. There is potential for using immigrants to efficiently build any migrant-receiving nation’s linguistic human capital. The nation could simply ask immigrants to speak their native languages to their own children as they grow up, and maybe ask those immigrants to supply books to help the kids read and write too. The nation should try to sell those immigrants on all the benefits their kids would gain from being multilingual.

    The kids would learn the local language easily enough from native kids they play with, the school system, TV, etc.

    The nation’s businesses and other organizations would benefit by having employees who could support international operations using those language skills. For example, the US military would be better prepared when it invades the immigrants’ homeland in the future.

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