Do we need immigration?

This is the question asked by Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. In particular in an interview with NPR in 2011 he argues:

“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?”

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Chris Hendrix is a Masters student in history in Atlanta, Georgia with an interest in the history of borders. See also:

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5 thoughts on “Do we need immigration?”

  1. This website seems to cover a wide variety of pro and con arguments related to mass immigration, and that’s great.

    But I’ve been unable to find arguments about how immigrants would change the “mentality” of the receiving society, as a result of interbreeding with existing members of that society. There are discussions about IQ, but I’m thinking about more than that.

    For a roundabout example, consider the Japanese. They are known for having corporations that manufacture goods of exceptional quality and technological complexity. Many people appreciate using those products.

    Why do the Japanese produce that result? I’ve seen statistics suggesting the Japanese, on average, have a high analytical or mathematical type of intelligence. But maybe there’s something else at work. For example, perhaps they have a drive to be thorough and efficient in doing things and to constantly improve. Or maybe there are some subtle mental traits involved that I can’t even imagine.

    And it’s difficult to know whether those traits are the result of culture or genetics or both.

    Suppose the Japanese allowed mass immigration. Unless they sustained a high level of racism, the Japanese over the generations would presumably mate with the immigrants. Eventually, Japan might be largely a mixed-race society. Why should we assume that those future generations would behave like the present generations, and that Japan would continue to be a manufacturing powerhouse?

    For another example, consider people with European ethnicities (whites). They make up only a minority of the world’s population. Considering that, the extent to which the modern world is the invention of white people seems remarkable.

    Those inventions have brought a mix of good and bad results, I think. But how many people would prefer to live in a world where none of those inventions existed? And how many people would prefer to forgo whatever future inventions might be produced by whites?

    It seems to me that mass immigration to the wealthier countries should eventually result in white people being mostly bred out of existence (replaced by mixed-race people). Wouldn’t that represent a loss of worldwide human diversity? Would that be bad?

    Have these types of ideas been discussed somewhere on this website, or elsewhere? I appreciate any leads that you can offer.

    1. Hey Erik,

      I don’t know of any part where we’ve actually covered issues that would arise from “interbreeding” but I can venture a bit of a response to your questions along that line. In short, I don’t think a decline in genetic diversity would be an issue of significance for a few reasons. First, assuming that preserving various racial groupings does have a significant impact on preserving genetic diversity (a doubtful claim that I’ll get to in a bit), the science related to attraction would tend to suggest we humans will maintain divides of our own accord. The preservation of separate ethnic and racial groupings within countries shows this (the American Southeast for instance still has recognizable racial differences between blacks and whites despite centuries of living alongside each other with varying levels of hostility). But beyond that so do studies on who people tend to be attracted to. In general people tend to be attracted to people with similar appearance and thus similar genetics with the important exception of seeking people with different immune systems. As such, a “everyone gets diluted into a homogeneous genetic mass” scenario is low. But even beyond that, ethnic groups we recognize simply don’t have that much diversity between them.

      As it turns out, 93-95% of all genetic diversity in humanity exists within any given population group. If everyone but the Massai tribe of southern Africa was wiped out we’d lose remarkably little of our genetic diversity. There is a little bit of genetic difference between populations, but it’s honestly not that impressive. Thus even in a situation of large scale interbreeding between ethnic groups diversity loss will be minimal.

      Also I don’t think it’s that hard to tell between cultural and genetic differences in national outcomes. You note the numerous inventions of whites (a rather imprecise term to be honest), and yet this is a very recent phenomena. Europeans spent a thousand years between the fall of Rome and the rise of science doing little inventing compared to other parts of the world such as India and China. Even the Americas had groups showing quite a bit of inventiveness. The current Western hegemony has been far to rapid for a genetic change to be it’s likely cause. We cover cultural concerns and concerns over technological slow down in other places, so I’ll let you explore those and if you have questions regarding them I can try to answer. But suffice to say that immigrants are not a random group, but people who are more willing to try to live in new cultures than their fellows and come from very disparate cultures in general making even an outnumbered native culture likely to remain dominant.

      1. To pile on a little, I actually find a concern that immigration would reduce genetic diversity quite unintuitive. Yes, the number of people whose genome is 100% “white” or “black” or “Asian” would fall, but these racial categories are incredibly arbitrary (what was “white” a century ago is different from what is “white” today). And in return for the falling number of people who are racially “pure” (whatever that means), we get an increasing number of people who bear multiple combinations of genes from different pools of DNA. From a combinatorial standpoint, genetic diversity goes up.

        If we are to crudely apply how we think about genetic diversity in animals to human beings (again making the questionable assumption that racial groupings aren’t wholly arbitrary from a genetic standpoint), open borders would actually be beneficial. In-bred animals are much more prone to various health disorders which cross-bred animals are free from. In-bred humans have had similar problems (certain royal families come to mind). If one assumes that racial groupings are genetically meaningful, and one has learnt anything from the history of in-breeding, one would actually favour more open borders.

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