How persuasive are open borders advocates? The case of Bryan Caplan

To make any comment about the extent to which resources should be devoted to open borders advocacy, and the way the resources should be allocated, one must have at least some idea of how effective various forms of open borders advocacy are. One of the most admirable proponents of open borders is Bryan Caplan. Caplan has called open borders the most important issue of our time (here and here) and his writings are linked to and quoted all over this website. But just how effective is he? How many minds has he changed? How many hearts has he won to the cause of open borders? I emailed Caplan, asking him to post this question as a bleg to his commenters, a group that includes both a number of passionate pro-open borders people (like John Lee, whom I recruited to the Open Borders blog after discovering him in the EconLog comments) and some of the most articulate restrictionists of open borders, as Nathan has pointed out.

Caplan was kind enough to do an Open Borders Persuasion Bleg, and Nathan has since written a blog post responding to some of Caplan’s critics. My focus here is not to respond to the critiques of Caplan (a job that Nathan has already done, with the exception of taking on Ghost of Christmas Past). Rather, my goal is to do a quick quantitative and qualitative analysis of the comments, and then to use these to pontificate on the future direction and focus of open borders advocacy.

Quantitatively measured conclusions: some evidence of effectiveness

I have a quick summary of the responses here. For each commenter, I tried to identify the commenter’s stance on open borders pre-Caplan and post-Caplan. For commenters where the stance was unclear, I selected all possibilities that were consistent with the comment. Here’s what I took away from the analysis:

  • About half the commenters (46/90 in my count) were influenced toward more open borders. 10/90 were influenced toward more closed borders, and the rest were either unaffected or their comments did not make it clear how they were affected. Note that my count of unaffected people includes people who were already so pro-open borders that their conviction couldn’t be strengthened further.
  • The overall mix of commenters’ positions pre-Caplan and post-Caplan has changed to some extent to the pro-open borders position. Support for closed borders (i.e., more closed borders than the status quo) decreased, and support for radical open borders increased. There was a shift all along the chain from closed borders to the status quo to moderately more open borders to radically more open borders. The most dramatic shift, though, was the shift from moderately more open borders to radically more open borders. Caplan seems to be most convincing in this group.
  • About 60% of the commenters (54/90 in my count) said, directly or indirectly, that Caplan had persuaded them about the importance of the issue. This includes some people who were already so radically pro-open borders that they couldn’t move further in that direction — Caplan influenced these people to attach a greater priority to open borders. It also includes people who aren’t completely convinced by Caplan, but think that this issue is important and deserves more attention, and appreciate Caplan’s efforts to address the issue.
  • There were a bunch of people (16/90 in my count) who said that Caplan had successfully addressed some, but not all, of their concerns about open borders.
  • Among the specific points where commenters considered Caplan unconvincing, political externalities was the most significant. Other issues raised by the commenters included IQ deficit, dysfunctional immigrant culture, and the welfare state/fiscal burden objection. Unsurprisingly for an economically literate group of commenters, the suppression of wages of natives issue was raised by almost no commenter.

Qualitative nature of complaints

The gist of the qualitative pushback that Caplan received from commenters was that he didn’t take restrictionist concerns seriously enough for them to be convinced that his advocacy of open borders had adequately taken these objections into account. Now, prima facie, this objection seems weird, because Caplan has spent more time than almost any other open borders advocate I know trying to address restrictionist arguments such as IQ deficit and political externalities (though I hope that the coverage of these topics on the Open Borders blog will soon outstrip Caplan’s coverage). He has been willing to consider keyhole solutions as an alternative to closed borders. Yet, commenters are not satisfied with Caplan’s efforts. For instance, C:

However, your arguments have time and time again ignored the obvious strong points restrictionists raise (ie., low IQ, low skill immigration is not the same or as valuable as high IQ immigration with most illegals especially a net drain on the taxpayer; the 1890s were a far different economy than our present-day stagnant economy which is already facing rising inequality; raising standards in other nations is just as (or more) beneficial as open borders; no nation state has ever survived an open borders or high immigration society; diversity weakens institutions (some of them, etc.).


None. Mostly because you don’t engage the best counterarguments that are usually here in your comments section and are usually based on the low quality of immigrants — e.g., low IQ, high crime in the long-term, vote left, use public services at a high rate, the extremely poor academic achievement going back 4-5 generations of Mexican immigrants, the increase cultural and political balkanization, etc — and the long-term effects of increasing them as a % of the population and the negative spillover effects.

The most cynical explanation is that when somebody says that Caplan isn’t taking restrictionist arguments seriously, what they really mean is that Caplan isn’t wholeheartedly agreeing with restrictionist conclusions. However, that does not fit the actual comments, because many fence-sitters also write that Caplan is decidedly unpersuasive or anti-persuasive.

I think the commenters’ objections stem from a number of reasons:

  1. Often, when Caplan considers a restrictionist concern, even when he does so empirically, he doesn’t hesitate to reiterate the moral case for open borders in the same post. For instance, in this blog post, Caplan considers the political externalities of immigration, but closes by making the statist generation (deportation) analogy to highlight the moral case. This probably puts off commenters as they get the feeling that Caplan is using his claimed moral superiority to evade the actual arguments offered by restrictionists and refusing to engage with restrictionists’ framing of the data. It’s easy to accuse Caplan’s open borders advocacy as an elite conscience salve and libertarian pipedream. Further, people who don’t share Caplan’s moral intuitions may think that even his empirical assertions are tainted by his moral prejudices against intuitively correct ideologies such as citizenism. [UPDATE: The linked blogger from the preceding sentence responds here]. For instance, Mercer:

    They have confirmed my opposition to open borders.

    Your posts mainly state how proud you are of being morally superior compared to the vast majority of your fellow citizens. I don’t see why your cosmopolitan values are superior to nationalism. Given that the vast majority of people are not cosmopolitan libertarians your posts about immigration strike me as naive.

    You are indifferent to the costs of low skilled immigrants in terms of public schooling and medical care which vastly exceed the amount of taxes they pay. You never address why California’s budget is a mess if having more low skilled immigrants is such a good thing.


    Since you claim to be so indifferent to whether migration helps or hurts, it’s hard for those who are focused on what would actually make things better overall to trust that your analysis is unbiased.

    James A. Donald:

    You have been completely unpersuasive. Indeed, I have been horrified and outraged by your arguments, and am unable to critique them properly, because such a critique would sound like a personal attack.

    If you want to be more persuasive, you should move to a nonwhite suburb, with non white political leadership, nonwhite police, and nonwhite juries. I guarantee you will suffer disadvantage immeasurably more severe than Jim Crow.

    Your arguments rest wholly and entirely on the foundation that anyone who points out fallacies necessarily implicitly or explicitly invokes racist hate facts. You arguments are that whosoever contradicts them, risks being punished.

    Factually, Donald is incorrect. To my knowledge, Caplan hasn’t called anybody racist, at least in the context of immigration debates. In fact, like me, Caplan has explicitly disavowed the use of shaming tactics on his opponents. Nonetheless, Donald’s confusion is understandable given the fact that Caplan constantly serves to reiterate the moral case, often wearing out the patience of restrictionists and fence-sitters.

  2. Although Caplan has proposed keyhole solutions, he doesn’t spend enough effort developing these or explaining why and how they may actually be made practical and palatable. Commenters on his posts may get the impression that he is using “keyhole solutions” as a way to deflect restrictionist arguments rather than looking at the reality on the ground regarding what’s actually politically feasible.
  3. Caplan doesn’t adequately address what might happen under truly open borders. He uses data for what happens at current levels of immigration to make assertions about open borders. I think this isn’t true, because Caplan has explicitly addressed precautionary principle-style arguments (an excerpt from his article is at the precautionary principle page on this website). And he’s happy to engage in thought experiments about what might happen under open borders — his exchange with David Henderson is linked to from the swamped page on this site. But he probably doesn’t address these enough. For instance, Silas Barta:

    I’m very much in favor of relaxing immigration restrictions, Bryan_Caplan, but gwern beat me to it: all you do is say why immigration is good in the abstract, without addressing the hard issue of where you have to stop it (or making the case that you never have to!): that is, how do you know when to slow it down to the point that immigrants aren’t undoing the very memes that made the country worth immigrating to in the first place.

    (Can we call that the hipster critique? “I came to this country *before* it was cool!”)

    You have, from time to time, refuted concerns about related “political externalities” of immigration … for existing levels. These results are not, however, robust for the general case of letting everyone come to America who wants to.

    I’m sure that your idea of “open borders” stops *somewhere* short of “Allow the Chinese Army to ‘peacefully immigrate’ to strategic locations, shortly before becoming unpeaceful and rendering America defenseless.” Where is that point, and why?

  4. Caplan’s case for open borders is heavily US-centric, especially when he tries to bring in empirics (the moral case is country-independent). This means that people in other countries may find his empirics unconvincing or irrelevant, particularly if he appeals to specific facts about the United States that aren’t valid for other countries. For instance, Sam Hardwick:

    I used to be generally in favour of open borders, at least in principle. However, after more careful consideration, partly after reading your “Why Should We Restrict Immigration?” essay, I am much more skeptical. This is partly because I’m not an American (but a Finn), and as the American argument is only so-so and relies on the relative cheapness of the American welfare state, it seems that in Europe open borders would be (at least in current conditions) a huge mistake.

  5. Ways in which Caplan has strengthened the case against open borders

    There are some ways in which Caplan’s writings have helped some people cement their restrictionist intuitions, and helped others turn away from open borders. My compilation suggests that 10/90 of the respondents were persuaded by Caplan toward more closed borders. Some of these are already listed above — they see Caplan’s failure to persuade as an argument against open borders, because they think that if Caplan, an intellectual superstar and open borders advocate, can’t make a better case for open borders, the case for open borders must indeed be weak. For instance, here’s a little excerpt from C’s comment, quoted above in full:

    For me, personally–Significant negative effect towards open borders. I very much respect your arguments on a lot of topics (e.g., education and signaling) and if someone of your intelligence can only come up with arguments of the level you (and to be fair, Vipul Naik) have, then I think the open borders case is extremely weak.

    However, there are also a few ways that Caplan has actively provided arguments against open borders. The first has been to provide a degree of respectability and intellectual sophistication to political externalities that was previously lacking among restrictionists. In his book The Myth of the Rational Voter, Caplan notes that the incentives for voters are not sufficient for them to exert the intellectual effort to be rational. Restrictionists build on this by combining it with the obvious axiom that wherever there are human failings, foreigners are worse than natives, to conclude that therefore, the borders must be closed. Of course, Caplan’s own work says very little about who’s worse as a voter — a native-born or an immigrant — and Caplan has been quite okay with keyhole solutions that deny citizenship and voting rights to immigrants. But it’s the basic groundwork provided by Caplan, rather than the subtleties of his analysis, that have been crucial for building the restrictionist case based on political externalities. For instance, Peter Taylor

    Completely unpersuasive. I wrote an appendix on immigration policy to my e-book on libertarianism, and you provided me with a great amount of fodder for the anti-immigration position.

    The practical argument for libertarianism depends on secure property rights. Secure property rights depend on government policy. Government policy depends on the behavior of irrational voters (great book, by the way!). The mix of irrationality we get from voters depends on quasi-religion and demographics, which are affected by immigration.

    If you want to persuade me, start by giving me an equation describing the rate at which immigrants assimilate.

    On the bright side, American democracy was probably doomed even without immigration.

    This para added later, 16 hours after publication of the post. I’d intended to say this in the original post, but forgot: Although political externalities have been Caplan’s main contribution, his endorsement of the importance of IQ as well as of the heritability of IQ and character traits has been fodder for restrictionist arguments based on the IQ deficit of immigrants.

    Lessons for open borders advocacy

    I now turn from the analysis of the comments to my own speculation on what lessons these comments hold for open borders advocacy. I list these below.

    1. Open borders advocate can do a better job by separating the moral case from the practical case for open borders. When discussing empirical issues, it may be best to refrain from discussing the underlying morality of the issues, and a discussion of the morality of the issues can be carried out separately from a discussion of the empirical issues. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, because empirical claims often have moral assumptions loaded into their framing. I pointed out in my blog post Efficient or artificial? Restrictionists versus open borders advocates. And it might backfire, because refusing to challenge restrictionists’ flawed moral premises and getting bogged down in the empirics at the outset might make it harder to then critique restrictionists on the moral plane. Perhaps the best strategy is to first issue a moral refutation, and then say something like, “For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to dabble with the empirics.” But this too might backfire, because making one’s moral stance clear means that fence-sitters may think that one’s ideological bias is polluting one’s empirical analysis. At the end of the day, I’m not really sure how best to go about addressing this concern.

      I think the simplest thing that can be done is to sound (and be) less conceited and more humble when making one’s moral arguments. To be blunt, Caplan comes across as too sure of himself, too elitist, and too holier-than-thou, and I think that this backfires on people because it appears like he’s more closed-minded and arrogant than he actually is.

    2. Open borders advocates could do more to reach out to restrictionists to articulate their specific objections to keyhole solutions and then engage in a discussion of these objections, and keyhole solutions to the objections themselves. For instance, guest worker programs are met with the second-class residents objection, and open borders advocates may do better to do restrictionists’ legwork for them by proposing ways to empirically address, rather than morally dismiss, these objections (this loops back to point (1)).
    3. Open borders advocates should spend less effort trying to show that immigration under the status quo is not harmful, and more effort on dealing with the claimed harms of radically more open borders. Admittedly, given the current state of debate on immigration, moving from popular support for more restriction to popular support for the status quo might itself be an improvement. But open borders advocates should be thinking about expanding the Overton window far more radically. Only a few papers (such as those in the double world GDP literature) have considered the economic effects of moderately and radically more open borders. I don’t know any analysis of crime under open borders except my hastily written blog post on the subject. Clearly, this is an area where the game needs to be stepped up. Open borders advocates should embrace the label of radicals, and should stop sounding like they’re defending the status quo.
    4. Open borders advocates should separate generic moral and practical arguments from country-specific arguments. I think that the Open Borders website does a good job of this. As I noted in my personal statement on the site:

      Most websites dealing with migration issues do so from a very country-specific perspective. They are thus able to focus on the details of specific laws and concrete numbers. But it’s hard to separate out the country-specific aspects of their analysis from the generic arguments being made. With the Open Borders website, I’ve tried to separate out the generic arguments from the country-specific arguments. Since country-specific arguments already receive so much attention elsewhere, building the country-specific pages typically requires linking to existing resources. As of August 2012, all the country-specific pages are US-specific, but this may change with time as more content is added.

      For examples of this distinction, see crime (generic) versus Hispanic crime and illegal immigration in the United States (US-specific). Or see suppression of wages of natives (generic) versus US-specific suppression of wages of natives (US-specific).

    5. The type of arguments that are made should be tailored to the blog’s readership. For a general audience, dealing with the suppression of wages of natives and welfare state/fiscal burden objection arguments might be the right thing to do. For an elite audience of libertarians, conservatives, and free marketers, political externalities is the way to go. Given Caplan’s ecumenical readership, IQ deficit also probably deserves more focus than it would do on a mainstream blog.

27 thoughts on “How persuasive are open borders advocates? The case of Bryan Caplan”

  1. Re economic literacy, it’s interesting how many commenters mistakenly believe that immigrants are more prone to committing crimes, and are more prone to be a burden on the welfare state. At current immigration levels, this is quite clearly not the case for virtually all developed countries.

    Also James A. “horrified and outraged” Donald is an out-and-out bigot (see his comments on Bryan Caplan’s post, “Turning the Camera”, where he more or less says South Africans would be better off under apartheid, and women better off under misogyny — because, I quote, “When the superior rule the inferior, it is not only better for the superior, it also better for the inferior”). I would not place huge weight on his remarks; if the open borders case turns off openly racist and sexist bigots, so be it.

    1. John, regarding crime, in the U.S. it’s not that migrants themselves have high crime rates (they tend not to be in the peak-crime years, and are somewhat selected for interest in legitimate work, so they are lower-crime), it’s the children of low-skill migrants. And the statistics in the U.S. bear that out: for example Mexican immigrants have lowish crime rates, while 2nd generation and later Mexican-Americans have crime rates dramatically higher than Americans whose ancestors came from Japan or France or England (I use these groups to compare because if we used the national average, it would include high-crime migrant groups, and high crime by earlier waves of immigrants would be used as support for admitting more from the the same or like sources).

      Similarly, first generation migrants initially use less in the way of social services than the average native because they are still young and healthy, but as they age they will claim benefits if they are legalized, and the children of low-skill migrants will draw more than average from social services.

      Again with political externalities, first-generation migrants tend to be less likely to vote and less politically active than their descendants.

      In many ways, the costs of migration are back-loaded. Taking a short-run perspective and ignoring long-run effects can exaggerate the case for it.

      1. BK, thanks for the comment. If you take a look at the Hispanic crime and illegal immigration in the United States page, you’ll notice that there are four points of contention in interpretation of the data that I state, and your comment explicitly goes into one of them (the “blame immigration for the crimes of US-born Hispanics”) and more indirectly into the other (the “inclusion of blacks in native groups compared against”). Rest assured, I take this second-generation crime argument very seriously. In fact, I have a draft blog post (low priority at the moment) whose first few paras (paraphrasing the argument) are quite similar to what you’ve written here.

        In the meantime, I would like to point you to this blog post, where I try to point out that open borders are unlikely to be worse than the status quo with respect to crime, because the current de facto illegal immigration source countries are already disproportionately high-crime compared to what source countries might look like under open borders. I look forward to your critique of that post.

    2. John, I’d have to say I disagree with your approach here, see my previous blog posts here and here on the matter. If you disagree with those, please leave your comments there.

      Regarding Donald, he maintains a blog here with the title “Liberty in an unfree world.” I think he holds a number of courageous and unorthodox views that deserve to be addressed, rather than dismissed with epithets.

      I would also challenge you at another level. I think it’s a cop-out to say that restrictionism is bad because of its racist associations. Paradoxically, this concedes too much to restrictionism, by making it appear that the best argument we have against it is guilt by association. We should be arguing that restrictionism is, in and of itself, morally flawed, regardless of the racial attitudes of its proponents.

      1. I agree with the approach of tackling restrictionist arguments on their merits. However, I think it’s fairly clear that arguments which hinge on statements like “When the superior rule the inferior, it is not only better for the superior, it also better for the inferior” are not rebuttable without first disabusing the arguer of their prejudices.

        In other words, if someone opposes immigration because they don’t want more blacks in their country, then there’s no way to convince them otherwise without first changing their views on race, and there’s no point pretending that they aren’t racist.

        However, given that most people nowadays aren’t blatantly bigoted racists (or at least try very hard not to be such), I don’t see it as a very effective use of time to tackle such bigotry head-on. It’s easier and more effective to dwell on arguments which can convince the open-minded skeptics.

        I don’t think I’ve ever suggested that restrictionism is in of itself bad because of its racist associations; quite clearly most people skeptical about open borders aren’t racist. But I don’t think it really is a good use of our time to pretend that racist restrictionists have a point when they make assertions like “When the superior rule the inferior, it is not only better for the superior, it also better for the inferior”. Their other assertions, such as the problems related to abolishing apartheid or ending slavery, are worth discussing on the merits, but there is no point pretending that blatantly racist arguments like “I don’t like black people because they’re inferior” aren’t racist.

        1. Fair enough. Reading your clarification, I think that there isn’t anything we disagree on regarding this issue.

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  3. “Although Caplan has proposed keyhole solutions, he doesn’t spend enough effort developing these or explaining why and how they may actually be made practical and palatable. Commenters on his posts may get the impression that he is using “keyhole solutions” as a way to deflect restrictionist arguments rather than looking at the reality on the ground regarding what’s actually politically feasible.”

    Yes. I think it would be clearly good for billions of people to migrate from developing to developed countries if migration were separated from political control over a jurisdiction, so that one could be confident rich country institutions would not founder. Such systems exist in places like Singapore and Dubai, but they would require big changes to realize in a place like the US: eliminating birthright citizenship or preventing migrants from having kids on US soil, and deporting those who cannot support themselves.

    Those changes would require a big political effort, since pro-migration political forces are mostly very opposed to keyhole solutions since they expect to benefit politically from bringing in immigrants that will vote for them. And so, to implement a Singapore-style solution the key step would be to push to create the legal apparatus and will to enforce that apparatus *before* adding tens of millions of recent low-skill migrants to the electorate.

    On the other hand, live immigration proposals of recent years have called for amnesty of all existing illegal immigrants in the U.S. with tens of millions more to follow via family sponsorships, and reduced enforcement to enable more low-skill migration. This would drastically change the political landscape, to the disfavor of keyhole solutions. Recall that support for immigration is the area where recent migrants are most different from locals.

    So generalized pro-immigration ideological pushes strengthen the opponents of keyhole solutions more than they support keyhole solutions. And in practice Bryan and folk at this site do seem to use keyhole solutions primarily as a rhetorical fig-leaf to deflect opposition and shut down conversations.

    I would like to see arguments why open borders would be overall better in the long run (in growth rates, world GDP, warfare, environmental quality, total happiness…) than a Singaporean system of near-open borders for high skill workers and guest worker status without citizenship (or birthright citizenship) for low skilled workers. I would also like to see an honest analysis of the politics of how to push for keyhole solutions without getting open borders instead, or some sensible account of why open borders advocacy helps the prospects for keyhole solutions more than it hurts them.

    1. “So generalized pro-immigration ideological pushes strengthen the opponents of keyhole solutions more than they support keyhole solutions. And in practice Bryan and folk at this site do seem to use keyhole solutions primarily as a rhetorical fig-leaf to deflect opposition and shut down conversations.”

      And generalised anti-immigration ideological pushes strengthen the opponents of keyhole solutions as well. (Unless your definition of a “keyhole solution” is capping immigration at 50,000 per year.)

      Make no mistake about it: most keyhole solutions are still far closer to open borders than anything which restrictionists favour. If you’re uncomfortable siding with keyhole solutions because it’s too “pro-immigration,” then you don’t really favour keyhole solutions.

      “I would also like to see an honest analysis of the politics of how to push for keyhole solutions without getting open borders instead”

      Surely you’ve heard of the term “political compromise”? Keyhole solutions split the difference between restrictionists and hardcore open borders advocates. If you’re concerned about giving the other side a victory, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

      “or some sensible account of why open borders advocacy helps the prospects for keyhole solutions more than it hurts them.”

      I fail to see how “People need to immigrate less, not more, and therefore we should fight to keep borders closed as far as possible” and “We should make it easier for people who want to immigrate to do so” (which is the ultimate spirit of all immigration keyhole solutions) are simultaneously compatible beliefs. Keyhole solutions are innately part of the open borders premise, unless you reject any form of compromise altogether. An open borders advocate who rejects keyhole solutions either rejects all forms of compromise, or isn’t an open borders advocate at all.

    2. BK, thanks for your thoughtful comment. It’s good to see people reject principled restrictionism and instead ask open borders advocates to work harder on making a persuasive case. This kind of feedback will hopefully help open borders advocates make their case better.

      My reply would be similar to that of John Lee, but somewhat different. I will develop it in full in a blog post that I plan to publish soon.

  4. Hi Vipul. I was one of the people who commented on Bryan’s post. I was already pretty pro-immigration before but have become more radical since reading his posts.

    Some of Bryan’s critics are just plainly not reading his essays. For instance, Mercer writes, “I don’t see why your cosmopolitan values are superior to nationalism.” Bryan has written about the shortcomings of nationalism time and time again.

    I have a couple suggestions for the open borders movement, which differ from your suggestions. You fear that Bryan comes off as elitist. I don’t see this as a problem, as long as the elitism is backed up by reason and facts.

    A few years ago, when the “new atheists” such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens were holding public debates and appearing on TV talk shows, they often came off as pompous and showing little respect for the other side. But what I saw was a willingness to speak frankly, to call a spade a spade. There is no reason to give your opponents credit they do not deserve.

    You seem to worry about how we can change the minds of restrictionists, but that need not be our task in making these arguments. When two candidates debate, they aren’t really trying to convince each. They are trying to make each other’s argument look bad, in order to convince a third party.

    What I like about Caplan is how he repeatedly emphasizes the immorality of immigration restrictions under *any* moral theory, whether it be libertarianism, Christianity, Marxism, etc. It is an unreasonable position almost no matter what your starting assumptions are. This attitude surely offends dedicated restrictionists but I certainly find it appealing and I sense it goes over well with the fence-sitters.

    I question your distinction between “practical” and “moral” arguments and the need to separate these two things in our defense of open borders. I think I know the distinction you are trying to draw. Practical arguments involve statistics, things that are easily measured. They are about immigration’s effect on the unemployment rate, on crime, on IQ levels, etc. Moral arguments are statements about rights and happiness and other intangibles that might not actually exist. Do I have that about right?

    As far as I can tell, the greatest strength of these so-called practical arguments is that they are easy to make. You just find the relevant data on Google, copy and paste it into your comment box, and, violà, discussion over, argument won.

    The problem is that behind every practical argument is an unstated moral intuition. When you point out that unemployment has gone up, you assume the other person cares about that, since he, too, has the intuition that unemployment is bad. So, in the end, all practical arguments collapse into moral arguments.

    Some of the intuitions behind these “practical” arguments on immigration are on shaky foundation, such as intuitions about needing to help Americans at the expense of foreigners. “How can we let foreigners come here to work when our own citizens can’t even find jobs?”

    As in every argument, you attempt to resolve the dispute by appealing to stronger intuitions. But why not start with those strong intuitions from the very beginning? Those intuitions are going to sound a lot like “moral” arguments instead of “practical” arguments.

    Our strongest intuitions are not about subjects like unemployment, but about things that are more basic, such as the wrongness of coercion. That is Bryan Caplan’s starting point, and I think the correct one. Immigration restrictions are coercive. Coercion seems wrong. If we reflect on it, we can think of circumstances in which that presumption against coercion can be overcome. What are those circumstances? That is how arguments about immigration (and really, anything else) should proceed.

    If you’re interested, my own argument in favor of relaxed immigration can be found here:

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I like your blog post and I’ve added a link to it from the conservative and small-government case for open borders page on this website.

      In my blog post, I raise issues similar to those you raise in the comments — I do say that there are dangers from focusing too much on empirics and failing to challenge restrictionist moral presumptions. So we differ more on issues of degree than of kind — we’re both agreed about the type of trade-off, but disagree about where to make the trade-off.

      That said, I think the problem with Caplan’s elitism is not so much the content of his statements but their tone. I think a more humble tone, making exactly the same points, and with less of a “gotcha” style, would do better. Caplan is already far ahead of most open borders advocates in terms of manners and tone, but I think he needs to be way better. I discuss these tone issues in a number of blog posts, e.g. here and here.

      You’re partly right that the goal of debate is to persuade bystanders, not hardcore restrictionists. But, in the context of immigration debates, most of these bystanders have restrictionist predispositions. They need to be convinced that Caplan actually understands restrictionist positions, and shouldn’t feel that he is attacking strawmen. Then and only then will the majority of them begin to take Caplan seriously. You were already quite pro-immigration before reading Caplan, so your own experiences in this regard are not what I’d call representative.

      Regarding your claim about the New Atheists, I find their track record unimpressive if we measure it by the raw rate at which people are turning toward atheism, and even more unimpressive if we measure the rate at which people are becoming more “rational” in a broad sense (which would be the true measure, because their goal is not just to turn people away from specific religious beliefs but to promote rational thinking). If open borders advocates adopted similar low standards, we’d probably get what we want in 2210 AD, if lucky.

  5. I am a huge Caplan fan and am far to the pro imigration side compared to the median, but my main complaint is that Caplan does not focus enough on marginalism.

    I think he is largely right on the moral case for imigration, however if you focus on the moral case that leads you to pretty extreme policies relative to the status quo. And Caplan does not back down from these.

    My problem with this is the same problem I have with any policies that are drastically away from the current status quo. We just don’t have much data on how it would work.

    My preference would be we take baby steps by relaxing imigration laws marginally and then collecting data. If all looks good relax some more and so on. Maybe we find out that the total open boarders solution works. I think it might.

    But I think folks would be much more receptive if Caplan focused on the politically feasible low hanging fruit.

    1. Eccdogg,

      I think Caplan does not see himself as somebody who is actually effecting policy change, but as somebody who is expanding the Overton window on the subject. Practical policy reform will almost definitely be at the margin, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t envision and debate the extremes we wish to head to. Radical ideas help clarify the direction and determine the pace of marginal reform.

  6. Hi Vipul,

    My understanding is that USA has a right to bear arms in its constitution. Isn’t that a problem for advocates of open borders? Whatever rate of purchase of guns is today, it is moderated by whatever culture is in place in the US regarding possession and usage of arms.

    An unrestricted flow of immigrants with presumably very different views on guns, like pashtuns who fire their guns in weddings, could change this, even to the extent of destabilising the peace for which the immigrants came in the first place.

    My point is are we looking at regular ethics or lifeboat ethics? What is the developed world – a resilient structure or a delicately balanced one?

    Also, the point I made in Caplan’s post – flow of remittances may postpone the fundamental reform needed in the developing world.

      1. Hi Vipul,

        I saw the delay political reform link. My point is similar, but slightly different.

        Remittances should be treated as a special subset because they give the impression to the immigrant sending countries that their system is more sustainable than it actually is.

        Remittances give the immigrant sending country a great boost (maybe even 100%) of the person’s income without any political/economic reform.

        To give a concrete example, the stoppage of the remittance flow from the number of people living in the gulf after the first gulf war, prompted India’s economic reforms. Even after seeing the results of these reforms, Indian politicians refuse to take the next few steps, now that the forex situation is manageable. It is like we live from crisis to crisis.

        How many years before might have we started the economic reforms, in the absence of the malayali remittances? I don’t know.

        How much longer might have we had to wait for economic reform, had the gates of USA, Canada and Australia been even a little wider? I don’t know.

        But I can quite confidently say that the gain through reform has been greater than the one through the remittance channel.

        1. You make an interesting point. I’ll think more about this, and probably blog it later. I’ll also edit the “delay political reform” page to include your objection.

          My offhand reaction is that, even if you’re right that remittances delay political reform, this would not shift the needle much on the overall cost-benefit analysis of open borders. But I’ll have to think more about this.

  7. It is worth keeping in mind that the set of people who still read Bryan Caplan’s blog is not random. For example, I used to read it many years ago, but removed it from my feed in disgust after what seemed like the hundredth time Bryan ignored the strongest restrictionist arguments in his comments sections while continuing to beat up straw men.

    My own position is influenced by standard engineering practice: open borders-type policies, to the extent that they are convincing enough that a bunch of smart people want to try it, should be tried by those smart people in an experimental setting. Seasteads, charter cities, Siberia, I’m not too picky about the details, as long as it is obvious that any major “negative externalities” feared by restrictionists are only inflicted on those who actually expect to be happy with the tradeoffs. Anyone who pushes too hard for changing US policy first is reasonably suspected of, at best, doing the math wrong: not in making projections given a fixed mathematical model, but in setting up a fair model and respecting uncertainty in the first place.

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