Immigration, trade, and reciprocity

In a recent blog post titled What I like about “Alien Nation”, I highlighted some points where I agreed with Peter Brimelow’s book Alien Nation, which features on the anti-open borders reading list. In this blog post, I want to consider in more detail an interesting and valid point raised by Brimelow about reciprocity in immigration law. I’d mentioned this as one of my points of agreement with Brimelow, but now it’s time to voice some disagreement.

Here’s a small excerpt of his argument (about Page 251):

If immigration is such a moral imperative, why don’t the Mexicans/Chinese/Indians/Koreans/ Japanese (fill in any of the other recent top-ten suppliers of immigrants to the United States) allow it?

Don’t say: “These countries already have enough people.” The United States already has more than all of them except mainland China and India.

And don’t say: “They’re too poor.” As we have seen, the whole economic theory of immigration, as developed by immigration enthusiasts, is that immigration does not displace workers: it complements them. Well, it should work both ways.

In my previous blog post, I expressed agreement with Brimelow’s fundamental point that the moral case for open borders applies to all countries, not just the United States or the developed world.

Later in the book, as part of his list of proposals to deal with the perceived problems of immigration, Brimelow suggests (about Page 262):

No immigration should be permitted from countries that do not allow reciprocal emigration from the United States.

The way Brimelow frames the argument, it seems he is saying that allowing immigrants from a country is akin to doing that country a favor, and hence, such a favor should be done only if there is a reciprocal favor from the other country.

Reciprocity is not a new idea in border control. The United States uses visa reciprocity tables to determine the maximum duration of various types of non-immigrant visas.

However, Brimelow’s argument interested me from another angle: the analogy between immigration and trade. For reasons unclear to me, economists have written far more extensively about trade and barriers to trade than about migration and barriers to migration. In this context:

  • Many non-economists adhere to the mercantilist tradition. Roughly speaking, this says that exports are good and imports are bad. Trade agreements are often framed in these terms: when one country reduces tariffs on imports from another country, this is treated as a “concession” to the other country that must be met by a reciprocal concession from the other country. When the government of one country raises tariffs on imports, other countries threaten to “retaliate” by raising their own.
  • A large number of economists, on the other hand, have argued against this line of thinking. Their claim is that regardless of the trade policies pursued by other countries, a unilateral policy of free trade is beneficial on the whole for the country that adopts the policy, and (most likely) for other countries as well. Thus, they argue that trade negotiations should not be framed in terms of “concessions” that demand reciprocal concessions. See here, here, here, and here for starters.

Now, the analogy between trade and migration is far from perfect. But I think that on the issue of reciprocity, the economists’ objection to mercantilist-style thinking in the trade context can be transferred to the migration context. In other words, unilateral open immigration generates net benefits, even if other countries don’t follow suit. Thinking of immigration law in reciprocity terms is fundamentally misguided.

PS: After drafting this post, I discovered that I’m not the first to notice the analogy between unilateral free trade and unilateral open immigration. In an article for the Future of Freedom Foundation titled The Case for Unilateral Free Trade and Open Immigration, Jacob G. Hornberger makes essentially the same point.

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