“Our take on it is really that a modern society has no need for any immigration,” he says. “We don’t actually need immigration. Our land is settled, we’re a post-industrial society, and so … from our perspective, we need to start from zero — like zero-based budgeting — and then say, ‘Are there groups of people whose admission is so compelling that we let them in despite the fact that there’s no need for this sort of thing?’ “
So do we need immigration? Krikorian goes into more detail on his reasoning in his book, The New Case Against Immigration:
A better approach would be to learn from the principle of zero-based budgeting, defined in one dictionary as “a process in government and corporate finance of justifying an overall budget or individual budget items each fiscal year or each review period rather than dealing only with proposed changes from a previous budget.”
So in considering the amount and nature of legal migration, we shouldn’t start from the existing level and work down; instead, we should start from zero immigration and work up. Zero is not where we’ll end, but it must be where we start. From zero we must then consider what categories of immigrant are so important to the national interest that their admission warrants risking the kinds of problems that the rest of this book has outlined.
To tackle this argument we need to consider whether the “needs” of the society are the primary issue at stake here, or even one of significance. This is not to say that society and concerns about it must be discarded, but they may not be particularly relevant even given pessimistic assumptions about the results of large-scale immigration. But first, why should “zero-based” budgeting be our analogy here?
As noted in the above quote, zero-based budgeting means that expenditures must be justified each review period, with the assumption being that all programs are assumed to need zero dollars every review period unless they demonstrate otherwise. This concept is popular in fiscal conservative circles and candidates for office such as Rick Perry have touted their own use of the practice in government. The main advantages of this revolving around the idea of anchoring bias, aka the concept that humans tend to be influenced in estimates of what is correct or should be done by other stimuli that they mentally associate with the question. This can even happen with numbers that are originally used to prime people are completely unrelated to the problem they are asked to solve. For instance, subjects who see a spin on a numbered wheel come up 65 and they are asked what percentage of UN countries are African have a median guess of about 45% while subjects who see a spin of 10 have a median guess of 25%. Zero-based budgeting advocates argue that we are being anchored to think of current expenditure as “normal” and therefore our estimates of what good spending levels are will not change much from year to year. Krikorian is adopting this to argue that our immigration debate has a similar problem, with the current number of immigrants being used as a baseline and mainstream proposal focusing on raising or lowering that number rather than rationally considering what the right number of immigrants to let in is.
To that point I actually agree with him. Ideally our focus should not be based on “this is what happened last year so let’s make adjustments off that,” but on what will produce the most benefit to the most people while preserving the most human freedom possible. A status quo bias can be helpful in many instances, particularly when a situation is generally good or the original arguments for the status quo were strong. In market processes for instance, given that markets tend towards equilibrium and this equilibrium as a general rule this tends to be efficient according to the first welfare theorem of economics support for the status quo usually makes sense. The status quo of immigration however was originally based on less than ideal reasoning to say the least. Not to mention how political incentives go wrong with issues of rational irrationality arising easily in politics. This includes a particular bias against foreigners found in Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter. Also while the status quo may seem good in the developed world, its hard to say the status quo is good for the hundreds of millions living on less than $1.25 a day. Of course, Krikorian and I may agree that the status quo is wrong, but we come from opposite angles. So let’s return to this problem of using zero-based immigration restrictions based upon national “need.”
Using the term “need” is problematic in the developed world, almost everyone in that part of the world lives hugely above the level needed to survive. For instance, depending upon levels of activity, humans can survive on as little as 600 calories per day. For income levels, hundreds of millions of people survive on less than $1.25 per day (and yes that is in Purchasing Power Parity). If an individual adopted the idea of only living on what s/he needed, then effectively the entire economy of the developed and most of the developing world would have to be cut. Furthermore, the mores of much of the American Southeast (often called the Bible Belt for its tendencies towards religious conservatism) would likely be offended by a zero-based budgeting of clothing every summer. When cities may see average daily temperatures over 26 degrees Celsius or over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, arguably the amount of clothes actually needed in such conditions approaches zero.
But what about countries? Do countries “need” any immigrants? Well what exactly do countries need? For stability purposes the answer seems to be not much. North Korea has managed to maintain the same governmental regime for six decades despite having the least open society and one of the poorest economies on Earth. They would not have to cut very much on a “need” basis. Perhaps though Krikorian would argue that he simply means “need” for the current status of most developed societies. To which, even if true, I would argue “So what? We can always do better.” Anchoring still happens even in zero-based budgeting, only rather than being anchored by the number of immigrants he is being anchored by the current state of society. If there’s a choice between having a world with a lot of wealth, or a world with twice as much wealth that is also more widely spread among people, why should we choose the first?
We use a “zero” baseline for things which are bad or burdens. Ideally the amount of times you get upset in a day is zero, but special circumstances override that at times. However, the fact that a bad outcome can occur due to something is not sufficient to say we should ideally want “zero” of it and only add other amounts as absolutely needed. Take driving for instance. The bad outcome of an accident can occur while driving, indeed this is serious enough that it is the tenth highest cause of death world wide. And yet does that mean we should all move to areas with greater mass transit? Should we abandon seeing friends and family in person because we would have to drive to get there? Driving is not an absolute necessity most of the time we do it either because we don’t absolutely have to go where we are trying to get to or because a change in our choice of home could bring us close to mass transit. But driving makes life so much easier and better for us all that few people would really consider adopting “zero-based driving” goals. And given the extent of potential advantages to freer immigration, not to mention the success of previous free immigration systems and the low quality of the arguments that brought them down (a subject I hope to hit upon in more detail in future posts), the argument that immigration is on net likely to be a bad thing seems even more threadbare than a driving example.
Finally, there are values that we should have a presumption against violating. These include the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, all of which are harmed when people can’t move to homes of their own choosing. Life is a lot harder when you are stuck with a terrible place premium. Liberty is tough to come by in countries that actively try to quash it. And how better to pursue happiness than by trying to find places to live that suit who you are? If these are things worth promoting in the world then perhaps our anchoring should be based upon not violating them unless we have strong reasons to do so. There may be particular reasons to keep particular immigrants out (to help prevent the spread of dangerous infectious diseases for instance), but the point is a person entering a country should be presumed acceptable to allow in until proven otherwise. Thus if we’re going to change how we think about the immigration debate our thinking shouldn’t begin with “are there any good reasons to let any immigrants in?” but “are there any good reasons to keep any immigrant out?”