Tag Archives: Bryan Caplan

More responses to Caplan’s critics

NOTE: All commenters are referred to as “he” in the text below. I did this because the only commenters whose pen names were gendered were male, and in my experience, most commenters on libertarian blogs seem to be male. I suppose I could have used the singular “they” but it seems ungrammatical when one is referring to a specific person. Apologies to any female commenters who might have been misidentified by my choice of pronoun.

Open borders is the most one-sided issue of our times. It wins the argument and to spare. That’s my position, and if there’s a certain bravado about it, that’s my way of daring those who disagree with me to justify themselves. I want to flush out the arguments against open borders, so I can refute them. Yet to argue with run-of-the-mill immigration critics is a tedious business, because their intellectual level is so low (see my dissection of Victor Davis Hanson) that the response could only consist in cutting through crude prejudices and elementary fallacies. Bryan Caplan’s Open Borders Persuasion Bleg a few days ago was useful because he evokes a more intelligent kind of critic. Indeed, as I noted in my previous response to Caplan’s critics, Caplan has managed to muster, in his comments section, the most clear-thinking group of critics of open borders on the web, because they’ve seen him make the case for open borders in its glittering clarity. They are informed dissenters. Though still mistaken.

Caplan started the thread with this invitation:

Immigration restrictions probably have bigger effects on the world’s economy than all other regulations combined.  As far as I can tell, virtually every moral theory – utilitarian, libertarian, egalitarian, Rawlsian, Kantian, Christian, and Marxist for starters –  implies that these effects are very bad.  As a blogger, I’ve tried (though perhaps not hard enough) to make open borders my pet issue – to convince as many people as possible that the cause of free immigration is of overriding value.

My question for you: How persuasive have I been?  In particular, how persuasive have I been for you personally?  Yes, polling your own blog readers obviously courts a strong selective bias, but I still want to hear your answers.

There were probably more positive than negative responses to this introduction, including some who were completely converted to the open borders cause from indifference or hostility. I’ll focus on the negative responses though because they show what we still need to work on. I’ll cover most of them, but skip the long comments from Ghost of Christmas Past because they would need their own post.  Continue reading “More responses to Caplan’s critics” »

Why are academia and Silicon Valley pro-immigration?

Restrictionists often argue that immigration suppresses native wages. How, then, do they explain the significant economist consensus in support of more expanded immigration? They rely on a mix of arguments such as the economist blind spot, elite conscience salve, and other attacks on advocates. The subtext of these, particularly the elite conscience salve, is that most open borders advocates don’t have to live the adverse effects of immigration. In this telling, open borders advocates, safe in their ivory towers from the unwashed masses, can declare open borders and shrug their indifference to the annihilation of their less fortunate fellow nationals.

As a factual matter, George Borjas (the man most quoted by restrictionists on economic matters) found that in the short run in the US, college graduates lose more from immigration compared to ordinary Americans, and lose less only compared to high school dropouts. I’m personally unconvinced by Borjas’s pessimistic estimates, and find the more optimistic estimates of the impact of immigration more convincing. However, that’s not a topic I want to get into in this blog post. Rather, in this blog post, I want to consider two stereotypically high-skilled profession types where people within the profession (including many who aren’t open borders advocates) actively advocate for more immigration of people who would specifically compete with them for jobs. I’m talking about academia and Silicon Valley, both in the United States context.

The case of academia

In the United States, academia is one realm where the current immigration regime is closest to free migration. Student visas are not always granted, but it’s easier to get a student visa than a H1B visa, and it’s definitely way way easier than getting an unskilled work visa (the H2A visa category). For post-doctoral and tenure track positions, academia has successfully been able to exploit a loophole in the H1B regime. The H1B regime states that a H1B work visa can be granted only if it’s convincingly demonstrated that no qualified American could be found for the job. In academia, it is usually pretty easy to set forth a collection of job requirements (such as papers on a specific subset of topics) that are satisfied by only one person on earth. It’s much harder to use this trick to hire people in other high-skilled jobs, and nearly impossible to use the trick for “low-skilled” jobs like restaurant worker or farm worker. The point is not just that the law has a practical loophole, it’s that immigration officials generally let people get away with it. Bryan Caplan explains this between 22:30 and 25:00 of his immigration restrictions video. And Caplan also notes in this blog post that academia already has de facto free immigration. Continue reading “Why are academia and Silicon Valley pro-immigration?” »

Why the deficit of immigration advocacy? A deficit of demand, not supply

Adam Ozimek at Modeled Behavior argues that “Bloggers and Economists are Failing on Immigration“:

This is a point I hinted at in this previous post but I wanted to make more explicitly. Bloggers and economists are failing when it comes to their coverage and discussion of immigration as an economic policy lever. Despite the occasional coverage it does get, the fact that we should have more high-skilled immigration (HSI) remains an extremely under-blogged topic. Yes, there are many things that “deserve more attention”, especially many third-world tragedies. But this is domestic policy of extreme importance, and it is a solution rather than an unsolvable problem in a faraway land.

I know that most bloggers do a pro-immigration piece occasionally, but there is nothing like the outrage, urgency, and ceaselessness that comes with other domestic policy blogging topics. Compare the pro-HSI blogging to posts that are pro or con fiscal policy. Or monetary policy. Where is the tirelessness of the market monetarists when it comes to high skilled immigration? Or how about the ceaselessness and outrage that liberal economists bring when arguing for fiscal stimulus?

My tentative conclusion is that people don’t blog this because there is no argument to have with each other. You can see this is true in the fact that I’m not even mentioning any facts or arguments for immigration in this post. High skilled immigrants are entrepreneurs, it would help ameliorate our long-run demographic problems, etc., etc. You know the arguments. The downside is, this means this issue can’t be used as a cudgel against intellectual opponents because few reasonable people disagree. We cannot raise or lower each others status by writing about this. If this is indeed why the topic is so under-blogged, it may well be an unmovable reality of blogging, but it is a pretty poor excuse and we should be challenging each other to do better…

There are some good guys here. Michael Clemens is one of the strongest voices out there regularly arguing for more immigration. Noah Smith dedicates a high percentage of his writing to this.  But few write about this issue as it deserves to be written about. Bloggers and economists respond to their individual incentives, so I’m not sure what can be done to motivate more here…

I’m not calling out any individuals here, but I am challenging bloggers and economists to answer these questions: are you writing and talking as much about high-skilled immigration as you should be? And if not, why aren’t you doing it more?

I’d nominate my co-blogger Vipul Naik as one of the “good guys.” Actually, Bryan Caplan is even more deserving of mention, being more long-standing and prominent. But I doubt that Ozimek has ever heard of Vipul Naik, or myself. I would suggest that Ozimek think about the demand side. Maybe bloggers don’t blog about immigration that much because readers don’t want to read about it. Maybe a blog devoted full-time to immigration, like Open Borders: The Case, would struggle to build a big enough readership to get the attention of a Forbes journalist like Ozimek, no matter how scintillatingly smart Vipul and I were. I get the sense from the comments on Caplan’s immigration posts that many readers read him in spite of his open borders views. If he blogged about immigration all the time, he might lose those readers.

I think the topic of immigration makes people uncomfortable. People like to think of themselves as fair-minded, favorable to equal opportunity, generous to the poor, and so on. But anyone who is fairly smart and well-informed can’t think about immigration for long without becoming uneasily aware that open borders holds all the moral aces, and the whole system of nation-state sovereignty and migration control must be re-examined and to some extent eviscerated. The usual food chain of ideas, with elites producing ideas that non-elites want to consume, breaks down, because honesty would force the elites to say things that non-elites would angrily refuse to listen to. I’m oversimplifying a bit, but my tentative hypothesis is that bloggers and economists are relatively silent on immigration because rank-and-file readers can’t handle the truth.

Open borders, moral egalitarianism, and blank slatism

Co-blogger Nathan already did a good job responding to critics in the comments on Bryan Caplan’s blog post Vipul Naik and the Priority of Open Borders, which in turn was a follow up to my blog post Open borders and the libertarian priority list: part 1. Fortunately for me, he chose not to critique one of the commenters that I was planning to critique, namely, Ghost of Christmas Past. It’s a long comment, laying out a cogent one-stop shop version of the economically literate restrictionist position. Responding to the comment in its entirety is beyond the scope of this blog post — rather, such a response is the scope of the entire Open Borders site. However, there’s a particular part of Ghost of Christmas Past’s post that I wish to comment upon. Ghost of Christmas Past begins with a strong claim:

Actually, Brian’s arguments for open borders have been absolutely crushed in the comments to his earlier posts on the subject (read them from the links in the side column).

Fundamentally, the problem is that Brian and other open-borders advocates are relentlessly anti-empirical on this question, which I think a “libertarian economist” should be ashamed of. Brian’s writings about immigration resemble sophomore Marxism more than anything else.

I’m interested in the second point on Ghost of Christmas Past’s list:

Second, his oft-repeated and empirically-wrong assumption that all humans are the same, their behavior simply molded by the nearly-immutable “institutions” which happen to govern society in one geographic place or another. This too, is crudely Marxist. Brian claims that immigration to the US would have no effect on US “institutions,” therefore no effect on the society which current Americans have built and enjoy, apart from driving down wages for a small segment of the population. This is nearly insane. “Institutions” are produced by the people who live under them. If you alter the people you alter the institutions. All the analyses showing that world GDP would double or whatever if there were no restrictions on migration are based on the idiotic assumption that advanced societies can instantly absorb all the world’s low-productivity people while maintaining constant marginal productivity. Such analyses are much less intellectually defensible than the “static analysis” of effects of changes in Income tax rates (raising rates will raise revenue without affecting behavior) which libertarian economists always deride when American leftists proffer them.

Apart from the empirical objection (which seems largely an objection regarding the characteristics of immigrants that harm immigrant-receiving countries, combined with concerns about political externalities, culture clash, and assimilation problems), Ghost of Christmas Past makes an interesting assertion about the beliefs that underlie open borders advocates. He/she argues that open borders advocates believe in a form of “blank slatism” — that all human beings are essentially the same, and that differences between human beings are due to their surroundings (in this case, institutions).

Even if this attack applied to some open borders advocates, Bryan Caplan is definitely not among them. Caplan has attacked blank-slatism and environmental determinism from at least two different angles: he has argued for the heritability of a number of traits, i.e., the role that genes play in explaining the variation among individuals. He has also argued for the role that free will plays in individual decisions and used it to argue against the desert of the poor. In fact, Caplan has gone farther than most by using a free will-based paradigm to study mental illness (see here). Caplan may not top the list of people who are the antithesis of environmental determinist or blank slatist, but he is definitely there on the list.

Is Ghost of Christmas Past right that Caplan foregoes his skeptical stance and embraces blank slatism on issues of immigration? Probably not. Caplan doesn’t assume that immigrants are identical to natives, or that institutions explain all the differences. He argues for specific postulates based on the evidence — in this case, evidence based on such things as the place premium, which shows that the exact same worker with identical skills can earn more in some countries than others. And Caplan doesn’t blithely sidestep the political externalities concern; he carefully tries to address it.

The extent of Ghost of Christmas Past’s confusion regarding Caplan’s views suggests a possible deeper communication problem. Upon some reflection, I think there is one plausible candidate for this communication problem. Namely, most arguments for open borders, including those espoused by Caplan, are based on what my co-blogger Nathan Smith has called “moral egalitarianism.” Moral egalitarianism is not limited to the usual egalitarian meta-ethical framework as usually understood, but also includes libertarian and utilitarian frameworks that treat all human beings symmetrically. Continue reading “Open borders, moral egalitarianism, and blank slatism” »

A Few Responses to Critics

My co-blogger Vipul Naik is better than I am at reading sources on the other side of the immigration issue. I sometimes like to learn by debating, to know what the other side thinks, and to take their claims and arguments and talking points as a jumping-off point for my own thoughts. Sometimes the other side convinces me and I reverse my views, e.g., on natural rights, which I disbelieved in at the age of 25 but believed in by the time I was 30 or so. But on other issues, including immigration, the truth is more lop-sided, and to read the other side just frustrates me with bad logic and pollutes my brain with false facts. To be fair, I think there are a few needle-in-a-haystack decent arguments on the other side, but to find them I’d have to read so much rubbish that it’s not worth the effort.

So I was glad to read the comments section of Bryan Caplan’s post “Vipul Naik and the Priority of Open Borders,” (a follow-up on Vipul’s post open borders and the libertarian priority list: part 1) because it aggregates a lot of objections to open borders in one place, succinctly stated, and informed by at least some familiarity with Caplan’s arguments. I’ll quote and address them in the order that they appeared. Continue reading “A Few Responses to Critics” »