Open borders, political externalities, and tipping points

In a comment addressed to David Henderson, Mark Crankshaw makes an interesting argument about the political externalities of immigration, raising the concern that unrestricted immigration may lead to a tipping point toward left-wing populism in the United States:

Here’s a hypothetical: what if, prior to 1989, there was a substantially supported political party in West Germany that favored the establishment of a Communist dictatorship and German re-unification under East German rule? And further that this party received about 45% of the vote (needing only 5% for a majority) and that this party was actively encouraging militant East German citizens and all others sympathetic to communism to immigrate to West Germany to tip the electoral balance in their favor? If you were a West German, would you welcome such immigration?

In my view, this is similar to the conditions in the US today. Admittedly, the Democratic Party may not wish to install a Communist dictatorship at present. However, I do believe that Democrat party policies are sufficiently noxious enough and that these policies will cause me substantial long-term economic and political injury if not sufficiently opposed. This substantially supported party has also proven very adept at building permanent racial-ethnic voting blocks based on a “share-the-wealth” platform.

I agree that immigrants are no threat to “impose” their political will against that of the indigenous population. However, what if the indigenous population is evenly divided ideologically and immigrants could permanently tip the balance in one direction? Wouldn’t immigrants from left-of-center countries side with our indigenous leftists and be quite vulnerable to “share-the-wealth” leftist populism? As one who favors limited government, I certainly see immigration as tilting the ideological balance to my ideological opponents–perhaps permanently. The re-election of Hugo Chavez this past week amply demonstrates that democracy offers no protection from leftist populism and the establishment of semi-permanent leftist rule. If it can happen in Venezuela, why not here?

Crankshaw expressed a similar concern in an earlier comment addressed to Bryan Caplan:

I’ve read your paper summarizing the arguments against open borders ( and your counter-arguments against them. Your argument is persuasive. However, in the back of my mind, I fear that I can still see open borders going very wrong.

My fear of open borders doesn’t center on the immigrants per se, but with the anti-libertarian forces native to the US. Would not these non-libertarian groups attempt to co-opt immigrants and use them to subvert libertarian ideals?

The current presidential election appears, at least to me, that left liberals are able to co-opt recent immigrants much more readily than libertarians. Immigrants may not vote much, and may tend towards the status quo, but it appears that the status quo they lean heavily towards is the anti-libertarian left liberal status quo. Take away the African American vote and the votes of recent immigrants and Obama loses in a humiliating landslide. Does anyone really believe that if Romney were not the candidate opposing Obama, but that the opponent were a libertarian, that these recent immigrants would be voting libertarian? Or would they remain firmly supporting left liberals?

Here’s my framing of Crankshaw’s tipping point-style model:

  • The median American voter holds fairly anti-free market views.
  • The Democratic Party in the United States is moderately more anti-free market than the median American, whereas the Republican Party holds moderately more pro-free market views.
  • Elections are usually a close call between the two parties. If we exclude immigrants, then the Republican Party would win. But the inclusion of immigrants tips the balance partially in favor of the Democratic Party.
  • Slightly more immigration would tip the balance (possibly irreversibly and creating permanent damage) in favor of the anti-free market position of the Democrats.

Before responding, let me say that I have very little knowledge about the specifics of the platforms of the Democratic and Republican Party, and even less knowledge about the nitty-gritties of party politics. That said, I think that Crankshaw’s model is flawed. It is not the case that the political parties have ideologically rigid positions, and that there is a kind of binary decision about which political platform gets adopted based on who gets the majority of the votes. Here’s my model.

  • The median American voter holds fairly anti-free market views.
  • Both parties (the Democrats and the Republicans) use feedback mechanisms such as polling data to gauge where the median American voter lies. Then, they try to carve out niches fairly close to the median position, but that can still be rhetorically distinguished from each other and that extremists can identify with (apropos Hotelling’s law in politics and the median voter theorem). On the issue of free markets, the Democrats have rhetorically chosen a niche slightly more hostile to free markets and the Republicans have chosen a niche slightly less hostile to free markets compared to what the median voter prefers.
  • When there are changes in the nature of the median voter, whether through immigration, generational change, or the publication of an Ayn Rand novel, both parties will move their platforms to stay in the same position relative to the median voter. If the median voter becomes moderately more hostile to free markets, both parties will adopt policy platforms that are moderately more hostile to free markets, though the Democrats will still be relatively more anti-free market and the Republicans relatively less hostile to free markets than the median voter. If the median voter becomes moderately more pro-free market, both parties will shift their platforms to become more free market, but the relative positions will again be unaffected.
  • Switches in the relative position can occur, but these polarization reversals are relatively rare (one of them occurred with respect to race relations and voting blocs in the Southern United States with the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s).

If my model is more accurate, then immigration is unlikely to lead to tipping points. If the immigrants who tend to vote tend to be more hostile to free markets, this will move the needle a bit away from the direction of free markets. But I would not predict a tipping point toward left-wing populism. Both parties will modify their stances toward somewhat higher marginal tax rates, a few more regulations, etc., and the tightness of political races will be largely unaffected.

Is this something for a pro-free market person to worry about? Yes, and I will address the nature of immigrant political views in separate posts (for now, see the links from the political externalities page). But qualitatively, this is different from a “tipping point” concern. I think that the standard framework, that treats such political externalities as a cost of immigration that scales continuously with the amount and type of immigration, is adequate to deal with political externalities.

PS: This post is written from a US-specific perspective, but the basic insights, if correct, should apply in many other countries.

5 thoughts on “Open borders, political externalities, and tipping points”

  1. What I would emphasize, though, is that letting people come AND VOTE is quite a different proposition from merely letting them come. In *Principles of a Free Society,* I recommend allowing people to ENTER freely, but the process of naturalization would involve sacrificing a large chunk of accumulated mandatory savings from labor earnings. This would make it relatively appealing to higher-earners and to those who found American life particularly appealing relative to other places.

    1. Good point, Nathan. I wanted to keep this blog post focused on Crankshaw’s specific point — the “tipping point” concern — and so didn’t get into the general arguments regarding political externalities, which are on the political externalities page and have been made repeatedly in past blog posts and comments (and will be made, hopefully in more detail, in future blog posts as well).

  2. Thank you, Vipul, for addressing my concerns about a potential “tipping point”.

    You write:

    “If my model is more accurate, then immigration is unlikely to lead to tipping points. If the immigrants who tend to vote tend to be more hostile to free markets, this will move the needle a bit away from the direction of free markets. But I would not predict a tipping point toward left-wing populism. Both parties will modify their stances toward somewhat higher marginal tax rates, a few more regulations, etc., and the tightness of political races will be largely unaffected.”

    Actually, this model can actually be tested. The State in the US with largest population of immigrants, that is, California. The Republican Party has become completely noncompetitive in Sacramento. The Democratic Party has achieved a super majority in the State Legislature and completely dominate numerically in their representatives in Congress. Bruce E. Cain, a professor of political science at Stanford University, states “As much as anything, the supermajority achievement underscores the obvious: the Republicans are pretty much irrelevant to the policy-making process in Sacramento.” One could argue that California has already passed the “tipping point”.

    My concern about left-wing populism is not that this will lead, at great cost, to greater levels of equality (bringing low income immigrants economically in line with the indigenous California population and promote economic equality within the State in general). My concern is this left-wing populism will achieve ironically just the opposite. I am of the opinion that the Welfare State actually entrenches poverty and increases inequality, and all at great expense.

    On that count, California stands as a dramatic example: California is one of the least equal States in the US (ranking 44th on the Gini Coefficient measure), it stands dead last in terms of supplement poverty (poverty rate that takes into account cost of living), and a UCLA study indicates that California public schools are the most racially segregated and unequal in the country. It also is home to the largest population of the extremely wealthy. High taxes has led to a large out-migration of the middle class (disproportionately White Non-Hispanics) and an exodus of small businesses, and, despite the high taxes California and raft of regulations (such as restrictions on housing development in affluent areas that that is a main driver of inequality), California is deeply, perhaps hopelessly, drowning in debt.

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