Paul Kersey has a thought-provoking piece up at VDARE with some speculation about the potential consequences of expanded migration and/or legalization initiatives currently being mooted by US legislators and policy wonks. Kersey uses an interesting technique similar to something that has often cropped up in the posts and comments at this site (including, specifically, comments by BK): an analysis of the performance of multiethnic societies to inform the debate about the short-run and long-run consequences of open borders. While Kersey’s rhetorical style is perhaps more upfront and forthright than that employed by the typical sophisticated restrictionist, the style of argument he makes does appeal to a wide range of people.
Let me begin by noting what I like about Kersey’s approach. It seems to me that too often, discussions about the effects of policies are built on exceptionalist rhetoric that fails to learn from the experiences of other countries. For instance, discussions of affirmative action in one country often fail to consider evidence about affirmative action and similar policies employed in other countries. The same applies to discussions of the effects of the minimum wage, or of tax increases, or of conscription. The problem with ignoring other countries is that a single country usually doesn’t offer enough variation in its history to provide a lot of insight. Comparing across countries can help overcome this problem. There are a lot of caveats to be considered when doing inter-country comparisons, but it’s a tool that should be given a shot. This kind of analysis, incidentally, is one of the things that I admire Thomas Sowell for, even though I don’t often see eye to eye with Sowell’s moral outlook, empirical assertions, and rhetorical style (see here for my discussion of Sowell on migration and here for my personal views on Sowell’s output as a whole).
In addition to using an international perspective, it may also be important to extend the analysis beyond migration to other situations that might mimic the effects of migration. A common and plausible strand of thinking is that the performance of multiethnic societies compared to more homogeneous societies provides some insight into the effects open borders might have, in so far as open borders would make certain societies (the target countries of migration) more multiethnic. The use of these indirect proxies, weak and questionable though they may be from some perspectives, is better than just throwing up one’s hands or refusing to consider the question. Open borders is a radical proposal, and it behooves those discussing it to try their hardest to look at all the various things that could go right and wrong with open borders.
Based on the above, I was initially quite sympathetic to Paul Kersey’s attempt to figure out the impact of open borders by looking at two examples of racially and ethnically diverse societies that have been known to be ridden with conflict and problems — South Africa and Brazil. Clearly, my bottom line differs from Kersey’s, but I was hoping to gain some insight from Kersey’s piece on the matter. I was somewhat disappointed in this respect.
Kersey’s analysis of South Africa is similar to many other restrictionist analyses — South Africa ended apartheid, and look how bad things are in South Africa today. What does the evidence actually suggest? Grieve Chelwa did an excellent post on South Africa in the open borders debate. A very brief summary of his post: things were pretty bad and in many ways getting worse in the period 1980-1994 (prior to the end of apartheid), and things have generally been improving 1994-2008, though not very fast. But the improvement post-1994 is certainly quite impressive compared to the 1980-1994 performance. Within the 1994-2008 period, things have generally been better in the latter half of the period, and the poor performance in the beginning can be attributed to some bad leadership and statist economic policy. Grieve looks at poverty, inequality, unemployment, and crime. In the comments, BK brought up the decline in life expectancy, which is certainly one worrisome negative trend, and is mostly attributed to the HIV denialism of Thabo Mbeki. Clearly, there are no easy answers here, and South Africa is at best modestly encouraging and at worst modestly discouraging in terms of the case for open borders. With this background in mind, I thought Kersey might have some interesting insights to offer on the negative side of the ledger.
Kersey’s analysis of South Africa, however, involves block quoting the entirety of a sidebar (!) from a Daily Mail article about a rich guy shooting his girlfriend (it’s unclear whether the shooting was intentional or accidental). The sidebar laments South Africa’s high crime rate, and this is the main piece of evidence used by Kersey to conclude that apartheid was a failure. But as Grieve’s analysis showed, the rates for most violent crimes (including homicides, which have the most reliable data in general) has declined considerably since the end of apartheid, with the main exception to the trend being armed robberies (a quick-and-dirty version of the homicide data can be viewed here, but see the links in Grieve’s post for more). Probably, there are many interpretations of the statistics, but I’d have hoped that Kersey would not use a single-point-in-time number to draw conclusions about trends in post-apartheid South Africa.
I don’t really know enough (or in fact anything) about Brazil. Kersey’s analysis of Brazil looks potentially interesting, but I’d be loath to use it as an information source for reasons very similar to those that I elucidated for South Africa. I would strongly urge restrictionists like Kersey to perform deeper analyses of trends so that people on all sides of the debate have a better idea of the restrictionist end in the range of plausible conclusions one can draw from the data. By taking shortcuts and preferring sensation over substance, Kersey does both his own cause and the cause of truth a disservice.