Huffington Post

Bryan Caplan, Steven Camarota (of CIS) and I were interviewed at the Huffington Post this morning ( Talking head was never a career ambition of mine, and I don’t consider myself particularly gifted at extempore public speaking, but if it can help, I’ll do it. Comments are welcome as always, but in this case, I’d be particularly interested in tips on how to make the case to a different audience than the readership of Open Borders: The Case. From the point of view of the average viewer, are there elephants in the room that I’ve left unaddressed? Am I gratuitously opening up big new vulnerabilities for my own side? Am I missing easy ways to score points with the median viewer?

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

11 thoughts on “Huffington Post”

  1. I really appreciate what you are doing here. Dr. Camarota is right in one respect: support for open borders is very small among the general population. So it is great to see discussions about how to best present the idea. But I think people want to know more. My wife is a journalist, and a piece she did about Lant Pritchett got considerable interest in the community:

    Anyway, some thoughts about the interview: first, I think it is good to start with a very simple overview of why you think open borders are good. For example, you could say “we advocate open borders for two main reasons: it is the humane thing to do, and it is the best thing we can do to generate economic growth.”

    Dr. Camarota tried to derail the conversation by talking about whether we have a right to regulate borders. We might all agree that the US has the legal authority to regulate our borders, but that doesn’t answer the question of whether it is the right thing to do.

    Also, you made the statement early on that a person’s economic opportunities depend on where they are born. This is true, but I think it can be misunderstood. People might think that this happens because where you are born determines how you are raised, that is, it determines your character and skills, which in turn determine your income. I think it is important to stress that differences in national institutions determine our income to a large extent.

    I guess framing it in terms of where you are born is a bit misleading. If you are born in Haiti and live in the US, you will earn like an American because it is not about skills, it is about institutions.

    One very legitimate worry that people might have (and most do) is that open borders would lead to severe degradation of the very institutions that make the US a desirable place to live. You mention this near the end, but I think you should present it at the beginning with something like:

    “Given these two main benefits, our main question should should be: how many immigrants can we admit while maintaining the institutions that make America a desirable place to live? Based on the evidence I have studied, I believe the answer to this is much higher than the levels currently allowed by law.”

    1. @Mike: “I guess framing it in terms of where you are born is a bit misleading. If you are born in Haiti and live in the US, you will earn like and American because it is not about skills, it is about institutions.”

      There are actually both components. The median Haitian who moves to the US under open borders will earn a lot more than he/she earns in Haiti, but still probably less than an identical twin born in the US, and definitely less than the median US person. The wage gap between countries partly reflects a difference in skills, and partly a difference in the economic framework within which people are operating. Closing the latter difference through open borders would be enough to eliminate world poverty (mostly) and reduce global inequality, but it would not eliminate inequality between the US-born and the Haiti-born-living-in-the-US.

      1. One might add, though, that given substantial migration under open borders, one would expect Tiebout-style effects on sending countries spurring them to improve their institutions (and also on various potential receiving countries, spurring them to attract migrants, assuming they are able to accept migrants). This would narrow the gaps between the US and Haiti (or the developing and developed world more generally).

        At the same time allowing more people to leave Haiti for greener pastures would also reduce the number of people born into Haiti’s poor institutions/economic climate and increase the number of people born into comparatively better institutions. Open borders is not a development panacea, but it will certainly eliminate a massive government-erected barrier to human development worldwide.

  2. @vipul

    Yes, of course you are correct. My point is that we want to convince people that opening borders is probably much more effective than trying to improve education or human capital in the countries of origin. Or at least disabuse them of the idea that improving those nation’s education systems/institutions is the only way to improve the lives of the people there.

  3. This was meant for an American homeland audience and so I would have framed the argument a bit differently. I would show how open border would be good for Americans – how it would help increase social mobility, decrease unemployment, create opportunities for young Americans burdened by debt/having trouble finding jobs, enable the elderly to live better on their meager savings or social security benefits.

    I would also point out that today it is easier for the rich to enjoy the fruits of globalization. Almost all borders are open if you have a few million dollars to throw around. Open borders would level the playing field for middle and low-income Americans. Can’t find a job in Detroit? Well, provinces in Canada are seeking skilled labor, regions in France are looking for people with solid IT skills, Korea wants English teachers and Germany is looking for people, period. 🙂

    I would point out that there are already 6 million Americans living outside the United States and the vast majority are middle or low income people. In nearly twenty years lived outside the US, I’ve met American retirement migrants, semi-skilled labor, entrepreneurs, ex-military, missionaries, secretaries, technology workers, dentists and teachers. The biggest barrier most of these people faced was getting legal in the destination country. Some don’t bother – I’ve met American who are ‘illegal immigrants” in both France and Japan. The Mexican government estimate that there are tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of them in their country. From my conversations with homelanders this situation seems to have escaped their notice. Might be worth pointing it out to them. 🙂

    Where you lost me in the debate was your discussion of taxes. It was not clear to me whether you were proposing immigration or emigration taxes. As an emigrant (from the US) and immigrant (legal resident of France) I have some very strong feelings about this. I believe that exit taxes and diaspora taxes, if applied broadly, would be a mighty weapon in the hands of government to stop legal emigration. As for taxes on immigration, many countries already do this – there are fees/entry taxes paid when one receives that work permit, for example. Frankly I am not so sure this is such a good idea. Under the previous French government the fees for students seeking permits to work and study in France were raised to levels that made it a hardship for some. If you have a link to a post where you talk more about this, I would be very interested in further reading your thoughts on this.

  4. Hi Victoria,

    You can learn more about Nathan’s ideas on taxes here:

    (1) Taxes are on immigrants not emigrants.
    (2) Taxes on earnings, not tariffs, so poor people, students, and visitors do not pay much upfront. It’s like ordinary income tax, just a little higher.
    (3) It is intended as an alternative tomigration restrictions for dealing with concerns regarding migration. Not as an added feature with the existing system. A pro-migration policy would just set near-zero surtax rates.

    1. Ah, thank you very much, Vipul. Very interesting proposals and I will re-read and think about them carefully. I will also most likely write a post for my blog – I’d like to ask some would-be migrants to the US what they think about this (I’m fortunate in that I have several good sources here) and how such a scheme would impact their personal “migration equation.” Thank you again for directing me toward an argument I had not heard before but has certainly stirred the grey matter quite delightfully today.

  5. Dear all:

    Thanks much for the comments. Mike’s probably right that the best place to start would be an overview of why open borders are good. Something like this…

    “Most people are born into countries where things just don’t work very well. There’s bad infrastructure, bad schools, poor professionalism in organizations and in government, and capital is scarce, and as a result, people are very poor, to an extent that is hard to imagine here. To speak very roughly, there may be a billion people living on incomes of $1/day or less in this world. Now, some of these still want to stay. Home is home. But many would like to leave. Surveys show that large fractions, for example one-third to one-half of young people in some places, want to emigrate. The main reason that most of them can’t is that the countries they want to go to won’t let them. Studies also show clearly that when people do migrate to developed countries, they become much more productive– so much more so that several estimates suggest that opening the world’s borders to migration might double world GDP. That’s roughly the same amount of economic growth as has occurred in the US in my entire life (I’m 35), which could be achieved by one policy change. But whereas economic growth in the US has disproportionately favored the rich, the growth that would result from open borders would disproportionately favor the world’s poorest people. That’s why we feel it’s so important to do whatever we can to help the cause of freer migration.”

    Concerning the point about taxes, I know that’s a somewhat disappointing place to put one’s emphasis from the point of view of the purest open borders supporters, but I do think it’s useful in making the policy non-crazy. Let me try to write a defense of it that might be suitable for a TV audience…

    “Now, I don’t want to minimize the disruptions that open borders will cause. Research on whether current levels of immigration reduce wages is somewhat mixed, though probably at least some workers have seen their wages fall due to immigration. But under open borders, it’s likely that tens of millions of people would immigrate to a country like the United States, and that would almost certainly cause large drops in wages for some workers, though other people would see their earnings rise. It would probably push the stock market and home prices up a lot, and people in highly-skilled professions would see their wages rise, while the people who would probably suffer the worst economic consequences would likely be the people who are already in some of the most difficult economic situations. Those whom we call ‘poor’ in America almost all have high incomes by world standards, so you could argue that we shouldn’t be too concerned about their welfare. Certainly, I think it’s completely misguided to try to protect them from competition by policies that do enormous harm to people who are much worse off than they are. But I would still like to protect less-skilled Americans from seeing their living standards fall. And I think it’s quite possible to do that, because of what I said before, about all that economic growth. When people migrate to the US, they can see enormous wage gains. It would still be worthwhile for them to come even if they had to pay some extra taxes after they arrived in return for the privilege. Those taxes can then be used to help less-skilled Americans. We can argue about whether or not that’s fair, but to me at least, it’s very clear that that’s a lot LESS unfair than just telling people they’re going to have a much poor, less free, and less fulfilling life because they were born in the wrong place.”

    Finally, concerning the implementation question, which I didn’t get to answer because the interview ended…

    “If you’re thinking about whether this is politically realistic or not, there are a few things to consider. First, 120 years ago, open borders was a reality. America and all the leading countries of Europe had freedom of migration. You didn’t even need a passport to get around. Open borders were just normal then. It’s hard to tell exactly what people’s attitude towards it was, whether they thought the state was ALLOWED to restrict migration but just didn’t do it, or whether the bad idea that the state could try to control all entry into its territory just hadn’t occurred to them yet, or whether they could conceive of it but regarded it as an abuse of power. But for whatever reason, open borders was normal then, and that seems to give some basis for hope that it will be normal again in the future. Another example is racism and segregation. For most of American history, racism was taken for granted in American life. Some people thought it was natural, a lot of people vaguely thought it was bad, and a few people fought against it, but it was normal and seemed inevitable. And then, in just ten or fifteen years, everything changed, and suddenly racism was banished from law and censored even in people’s private conversations, so that while some of it doubtless still exists, it has largely been erased from the public square. It seems possible that there could be a similar shift of public opinion on migration restrictions, where they go from being acceptable to barbarous in just a generation or so. Slavery was another question where there was a sea change in public opinion, and that’s a good precedent, too, because slavery had largely disappeared in Europe in the Middle Ages, and then was re-established by Europeans on a huge scale when they started colonizing other continents. So there was a time without slavery in the past to look back to and aspire to restore, just as open borders advocates look back to the 19th century for inspiration.

    “Finally, it looks likely that immigration reform is going to pass in the next few weeks or months, and there will basically be an amnesty, or whatever you want to call it, for 11 million people who are here, and a path to eventual citizenship. Now, that’s a very, very good thing. It’s an absolute national disgrace that a million or so family members have been separated by force through deportations. That sort of thing should basically never happen at all, let alone to a million people, and every American should feel intensely ashamed of it, and many of us do. Nothing could be more patriotic than trying to purge this wicked practice from the American body politic. But what then? And here I think Steve will agree with me, that this amnesty isn’t going to solve what most people see as the problem of undocumented immigration, though of course we open borders advocates don’t see it as a problem. But the point is that when you grant amnesty, you create incentives for more people to come illegally. So we’re in a kind of catch-22. Either we do horrible things, separating families by force and behaving in ways that we know are shameful and that make a mockery of our values, or else we create an incentive for people to break our laws. Suppose we pass amnesty today, and a lot more people want to come. They find jobs, they become productive people, they settle into our communities, they have kids who are US citizens, and they hope we’ll enact another amnesty. What are we going to do? We know it’s wrong to separate by force family members who haven’t really done anything wrong. If we deport them, we’ll be ashamed again. If we don’t, once again we’ll have a population of people living in the shadows. At some point, people may be ready to accept that the only way to behave decently without giving people an incentive to break the law, is just to have open borders.”

    By the way, in response to this…

    “Dr. Camarota tried to derail the conversation by talking about whether we have a right to regulate borders. We might all agree that the US has the legal authority to regulate our borders, but that doesn’t answer the question of whether it is the right thing to do.”

    That may or may not have been useful as an argumentative tactic, but I’d have scruples about saying that the US has the legal authority to regulate our borders. If we’re talking about natural law, I think the US government’s authority to regulate the borders is a lot less than what it thinks it is. Immigration restrictions are not just unwise, but unjust.

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