Collected comments on the World Values Survey data

Co-blogger Nathan Smith recently had a post titled who favors open borders? that looked at some data from the World Values Survey on attitudes to immigration. Nathan’s post was mentioned by Bryan Caplan at EconLog here and by Steve Sailer on his own blog here and here. Commenters at all places have raised a number of interesting points. This post is meant to expound a bit on my own interpretation and mention issues raised by commenters across all these posts.

Interesting theories for the general patterns

This is an expansion and restructuring of some stuff I already mentioned in a comment on Nathan’s post. I’ll first offer the individual theories, then the synthesis.

  1. Countries that people generally want to leave (emigrate from) tend to have a larger proportion of people supporting “let anyone come” and in general seem to have a more pro-open borders position. If this holds up empirically, one simple explanation may be a sort of intuitive Golden Rule: people who want to migrate to other countries take the right to migrate more seriously for immigrants to their country as well.
  2. Countries that generally see a higher proportion of immigrants generally tend to be more restrictionist, while countries that have a low proportion of immigrants (and a low proportion of the foreign-born in general) tend to be more pro-open borders. If this holds up empirically, then the simplest explanation might be that high levels of immigration lead to a nativist backlash by making the native-immigrant distinction more salient. One confounding factor here is that countries with a high proportion of immigrants also tend to have a high proportion of people who are more pro-open borders on account of being immigrants or related to immigrants. My suspicion is that the relation between high immigration levels and low support for open borders would be even stronger if we restricted attention to natives who are native-born and do not have a foreign-born spouse, sibling, parent, or child.
  3. Slightly related to (2), but different: countries that have higher proportions of immigrants tend to be less likely to favor extreme solutions. In other words, in addition to leaning more restrictionist, they’re generally less likely to have lots of people at the extremes of “Let Anyone Come” and “Prohibit” whereas countries like India that have a very low share of the foreign born have large proportions of people at both extremes. Of course, it’s possible that India is an outlier in this regard. I’m less sure of this pattern than the others. The simple explanation for this pattern, if it holds up, is that countries with a large resident foreign born population (whether immigrants or guest workers/students) is more tuned to the practical constraints and “arguments on both sides” and hence would be more likely to support middle-of-the-road solutions.

My overall guess, based on looking at the table, is that the very high “Let Anyone Come” countries are mostly explained by (1). Take a look at the top five countries: Vietnam, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Mali. With the exception of Vietnam, they all have GDP (PPP) per capita per year less than $2000 (they’re in the $1000-1500 range by a number of estimates — see here). Vietnam, with a GDP (PPP) of about $3000-3500 per year, is somewhat of an outlier on the GDP front, but still poor enough to go with the general thesis here. The only other country that I can see on the list with a notably low GDP (PPP) is Ghana, but the estimates for Ghana (#11 on the “Let Anyone Come” ranking) vary quite a bit between $1800 and $3100.

From #6 onward on the list (percentages 28% or lower for “Let Anyone Come”) we start seeing middle-income countries and “upper low-income countries” which are generally not places that people want to desperately leave, but also aren’t attractive destinations for immigrants in general (though they see some traffic from their bordering countries). Countries 6 to 10 are Morocco, Romania, Uruguay, Peru, and India. Of these, Morocco and India are low-income but not the extreme low-income levels of sub-Saharan Africa, whereas Romania, Uruguay, and Peru are solidly middle-income countries — GDP (PPP) between $8000 and $16000 for all of these. The case of India is a little confusing because of its huge size — there are parts of India that have income levels comparable to the extreme low-income sub-Saharan African countries, and other parts that almost make it to middle-income status. One reason for the unusual response percentages in India may be this considerable diversity in the income levels between regions.

For these countries, then, I think the main operative factors are (2) and (3) — they tend to generally be more pro-open borders but also have high numbers of people at both extremes. However, unlike the extreme low-income countries case where almost all these countries are strongly pro-open borders, middle-income countries overall are all over the map. Malaysia, the most restrictionist country by the “Let Anyone Come” metric, is also middle-income. So a more careful statistical analysis would be needed in order to decipher the patterns here.

Patterns for specific countries

Some outlier countries have been pointed out in various comments:

  • The causes of Vietnam’s top position are unclear. Eric speculates a bit about this here (comparing Vietnam to Indonesia), and some commenters on Steve Sailer’s blog post also offer their thoughts.
  • India has received a lot of attention for having unusually high percentages of people in both the “Let Anyone Come” and Prohibit” categories. Regional variation within India may be part of the story. I offer some thoughts on India at this comment.
  • Among developed (high-income) countries, Sweden is a bit of an outlier with respect to its “Let Anyone Come” percentage. Its percentage, 18%, is much higher than the 8% and lower values for other developed countries. Steve Sailer and his commenters offer some theories about Sweden here.
  • Malaysia’s unusually low “Let Anyone Come” number has sparked the interest of my co-blogger John Lee, who offered some preliminary thoughts in this comment.
  • In this comment, Brian Moore points out that Canada and the USA have very similar views on immigration but very different immigration policies.

2 thoughts on “Collected comments on the World Values Survey data”

  1. Mexico has extremely harsh anti-immigrant laws. If you’re in Mexico illegally even if you overstay your VISA your immediately on discovery, mandatory. The second offense gives you a very long prison sentence.

    This is very strange since Mexican politicians in general and presidents in particular vehemently attacks US immigrations laws. In my world you don’t critizice someone if their laws are less restrictive and harsh. In my world if you critizice someone you better get your own house in order first. Otherwise you’re just a hypocrite!

    Does the World Values do a check whether immigration laws in countries that say they are for open immigration have more linient immigration laws than the EU/US? If not its not an opinion worth noting. If you say you’re for Open Borders but vote to keep your own harsh laws that’s absurd. It’s like the argument. “We need higher taxes but I don’t want to pay them. Let others pay!

    1. It depends on whether (1) you subscribe to individual versus collective responsibility, and (2) you think that the government is responsive to the desires of the people.

      For (1), for instance, I don’t think the fact that the US has a restrictive immigration regime implies that people like Bryan Caplan are insincere about their belief regarding open borders. The key, of course, is that Bryan Caplan doesn’t determine US immigration policy in isolation. Similarly, those Mexicans who support freer migration to Mexico aren’t to be held personally responsible for the restrictionist actions that the government undertakes, possibly due to other Mexicans who support such actions.

      Regarding (2), it’s possible that governments, even democratic governments, are not responsive to the wishes of their elected populaces on specific issues that are not generally vote-deciders. The US is more pro-immigration than the median voter wants, largely because voters don’t care that much about immigration relative to other issues. A similar dynamic may be operating in other countries. I know too little about Mexico to comment on whether it’s applicable, but it could be that Mexicans individually are more pro-open borders but it’s just not an important issue for them politically, so the status quo remains locked in.

      Of course, it’s also possible that the WVS is unrepresentative for Mexico, or that Mexicans tell different things to surveyors compared to how they act in the voting booth.

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