Tag Archives: economist consensus

Myths and muddled thinking: the case for closed borders made at the Intelligence Squared debate

I was lucky enough to personally be in the audience earlier this week when guest blogger Bryan Caplan and software entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa made the case for open borders at the Intelligence Squared debate on the motion “let anyone take a job anywhere“. Bryan and Wadhwa were up against Ron Unz, an American conservative intellectual, and Kathleen Newland, a migration policy wonk opposing the motion. You can watch a video of the full debate, read the transcript, or see our page on the debate and related links. The IQ2 organisers polled the audience before and after the debate on support for the motion; the winner was the one who moved the needle the most. No prizes for guessing how I voted.

Still, I was surprised at how much the polling going on favoured the motion; a plurality voted for it, 46%-21%, with another third of the audience undecided. The restrictionist side more than doubled their vote share to a solid plurality of 49%-42% by the end of the debate, with another 9% still undecided. The hypothesis which makes the most sense to me, which I think a lot of folks, including Bryan, subscribe to is that a good deal of the audience going in did not fully appreciate the gravity of the motion: this isn’t about moving from closed borders to cracking the door open an inch. This is about truly liberating the workers of the world from the chains which keep them locked up in the country they happen to be born into. A relatively naive pro-immigration person going into the debate could well have voted for the motion initially, and realised after the debate that they may want a slightly more liberal policy, but nothing close to open borders, and voted accordingly then. Overall, I am heartened that almost half the audience remained in favour of open borders even after hearing out the case for and against; I’d rather have 42% who strongly favour open borders in full knowledge of the case for and against, than 46% who think it sounds good but aren’t sure what the case for either side might be.

I am hardly an unbiased observer, but I felt Bryan’s opening and closing statements summarised well the best of the case for open borders: closed borders oppress innocent people. They treat people like enemies of the state simply because they were born in the wrong country — something they had no choice in. This is both manifestly unjust and incredibly inefficient. The world is losing the fantastic talents of billions, which could be put to so much better use outside the countries they are trapped in by happenstance.

Having said that, I did enjoy the other side’s arguments. Although I was hardly persuaded by them, I felt both Unz and Newland very clearly crystallised almost every single argument, short of outright bigotry, that I’ve heard against open borders. Unz played a very effective restrictionist bad cop to Newland’s “we can let more in, but we can’t open the borders” mainstream liberal good cop. Unz trotted out a bunch of familiar populist right-wing arguments: immigrants depress wages; they’re scheming welfare parasites; and they will only be a boon for wealthy capitalists. Newland trotted out all the familiar left-wing arguments: admitting immigrants imposes an obligation on government to care for them and government’s resources are not unlimited; every government has the authority to impose its own restrictions on immigration as it sees fit; it is irresponsible to outsource immigration policy to private citizens like employers.

Wadhwa was the only debater who disappointed me. He and Bryan came in seeming to have agreed to specialise; Bryan would cover the arguments for low-skilled immigration, and Wadhwa would speak to the arguments for high-skilled immigration. This arrangement turned out to be ineffective, I think largely because hardly anyone can oppose open borders for high-skilled workers: every single argument made by Unz and Newland was really against open borders for low-skilled workers. Wadhwa thus didn’t really have much to say other than repeat all the points for what, in my mind, is the virtual slam dunk of high-skilled immigration.

Having said that, one thing that was new to me that night was finding that Wadhwa really favours open borders. I know I wasn’t the only one who, when I heard the line-up, wondered why Wadhwa was speaking, when all his prior activism has focused on high-skilled immigration. People standing up for the right of the privileged, educated classes to move freely around the world are a dime-a-dozen. But try talking to them about immigration from anyone else, and these people’s positions often change either to apathy or outright restrictionist antipathy. From his comments during the debate, Wadhwa showed he is on on side of open borders for all, and rejects all the apocalyptic predictions which Unz so ponderously repeated that night. As Wadhwa so simply put it, “if an employer thinks that this Mexican gardener is more qualified to do this job than someone else they can hire locally, let them do it.”

My favourite moment of Wadhwa’s was when he took to the stage for his opening statement and showed himself clearly speechless at Unz’s demagoguery: I’ve read Unz’s work, as have Bryan and Wadhwa, and we know Unz is far more intelligent and nuanced than the caricature of restrictionism he appeared that night. Unfortunately, Unz’s demagoguery clearly worked. All you have to do is trot out the laundry list of myths about the evils of immigrants, and dramatise the scenario out of any proportion to the actual facts. Unz repeatedly declared that open borders would “convert America’s minimum wage into its maximum wage” — a prediction I’d gladly bet with Unz on, if only we could somehow open the borders. Economists have repeatedly found that more immigration actually has hardly any impact on wages for most workers, and may even boost low-skilled natives’ incomes. Even if you multiply the most pessimistic estimates of immigration’s effects on wages several times over, you cannot come close to driving wages down to the level of the minimum wage.

Unz knows none of this; he happily opened with the cheerful declaration that he doesn’t know anything about economics. But populist demagoguery is quite an effective debating tactic, especially when you’re dealing with a non-technical audience. Unz harped on how open borders would cause class warfare, ostensibly because a massive influx of foreign labour would harm native labour tremendously, to the benefit of capital. But the economist consensus is quite clear: Unz is wrong. As one economist, Ethan Lewis (who, full disclosure, is a former teacher of mine) has said: “Calculations often include native ‘capital owners’ as additional short-run beneficiaries, but there is ample theoretical and empirical support for the idea that such benefits do not last beyond a few years – the short run really is short.” Moreover, Lewis has looked at how industrialists actually respond to inflows of foreign labour — and he has found that they respond by cutting back on their investments in capital and investing more in low-skilled labour, in turn driving up low-skilled natives’ incomes!

Unz’s arguments are superficially appealing, but they simply cannot withstand scrutiny when you look into the ideas and thinking which Unz purports to back him up. I thought Unz did exactly what a debater looking to persuade people to the restrictionist side should do: choose what people are likeliest to believe, and hammer away at it. But convincing as he might have sounded, I think that Newland likely was the one who won the debate for their side.

To be fair to her, Newland is no lover of closed borders: she’s an advocate for more liberal immigration policies and clearly cares for migrants. But she was the speaker who took the positions that I feel appeal the most to any layperson in the mainstream who is asked to consider open borders: well, it’s good to help poor people by letting them in, but we have to be careful to ensure we don’t admit too many, since it creates an obligation for us to care for these people, and we don’t have limitless resources. She elucidated these positions clearly. I also felt that she made perhaps the most frank and revealing statement of the evening: when asked if she favoured government discrimination against the foreign-born, she responded: “I think our governments are obliged to discriminate in our favor“. As she so clearly says, the case against open borders rests in large part on denying the assertion Bryan made in his opening statement that banning foreigners from seeking honest work is no different from banning women, Jews, or blacks from seeking honest work. It’s different, you see: discriminating against women, Jews, and blacks is wrong. But it is so right to discriminate against foreigners.

Much to my dissatisfaction, after opening statements, the debaters spent a lot of time arguing about whether a minimum wage should apply to immigrant workers, and if so, how high should it be. Here, Bryan was alone in insisting there was no need to set such a precondition on opening the borders. The rest of the panel agreed that the US ought to raise its minimum wage, and spent a good deal of time going back and forth about how this impacted the motion. To me, this question is entirely irrelevant, and I think Bryan could have tried harder to shut down this red herring by following up on a point Wadhwa made: the debate is about whether we should let anyone take a job anywhere. The debate has nothing to do with other labour market regulations. Any government has the authority to regulate its domestic labour market. Whether those regulations are appropriate or need amending is a completely different issue. All Bryan and Wadhwa are saying is that governments do not have the authority to discriminate against foreigners in the labour market — to impose one set of labour laws on foreigners that do not apply to natives.

To put it differently, there are different laws governing the labour market in the US, the UK, Bangladesh, and Brazil. But nobody’s saying that they all should have the same set of labour laws, the same minimum wage. The point of open borders is that people who want to move out of one labour market, out of one set of labour laws and regulations, and into another one, should be allowed to. People should be allowed to seek work anywhere, and people should be allowed to hire anyone from anywhere, in compliance with all the same labour laws that apply to native workers. Restrictionists in Unz’s camp may favour a high minimum wage to price unskilled foreign workers out of the labour market — but that’s a very different kettle of fish from favouring the use of tanks and gunships to threaten unskilled foreign workers with violent force. The scope of the motion was fundamentally about ending the global war on immigrants — not raising the US minimum wage.

One thing I liked about how the IQ2 moderator, John Donvan, set up the debate was that he made clear open borders is already being tried in the EU, and can readily be accomplished on a larger scale today via multilateral open border treaties. I thought it quite funny how Unz and Newland argued that we shouldn’t count this a success for open borders, because EU policy poured aid into poorer EU countries prior to opening the borders in hopes of dissuading economic migration. They made it sound like the EU only opened its internal borders once every country had more or less attained a similar level of economic performance. But EU countries range in per capita income (adjusted for purchasing power) from the $15K-$20K range (for countries like Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland) up to the $40K-$50K range (for countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria). The fact of the matter is, as Bryan and Wadhwa pointed out, that none of the catastrophes which Unz and those of like minds have insisted are sure to happen under open borders actually happened in the EU. And Mexico has a higher per capita income than Bulgaria, mind you!

After the debate, I felt that the organisers had actually put together a fantastically representative panel:

  1. Bryan, the open borders cum free market radical
  2. Wadhwa, the open borders moderate
  3. Unz, the restrictionist doomsday prophet
  4. Newland, the mainstream liberal open borders skeptic

Each person represented a distinct side of the debate. Unfortunately, because of disagreements on rather irrelevant points (like the level of the minimum wage), Bryan and Wadhwa sometimes found themselves having to disagree. Moreover, Unz and Newland were careful to make points which complemented each other; even though right- and left-wing populism rarely agree on much elsewhere, it’s hardly surprising that they tend to agree on immigration. Both left- and right-wing restrictionists share the belief, so clearly articulated by Newland, that government is obliged to protect people from competition in a fair market by use of tanks and battleships — by treating innocent people who happen to have been born in another country as if they are armed, invading armies. It was not a huge surprise to me that the audience, by a slight margin, felt more persuaded by Unz and Newland, even if their facts and assertions were often way off base, especially in Unz’s case.

Newland dealt more in moral arguments that evening than she did in facts, which made her the more formidable opponent, even though you can certainly say the moral case for open borders is a slam dunk. Newland stated simply that people feel that admitting immigrants is to assume some sort of responsibility for them, and this makes it impossible to admit everyone, since our resources are not limitless. In other words, governments have an obligation to provide the same level of welfare and benefits for everyone in their territory.

Newland also harped on the claim that governments have the fundamental authority to set any immigration policy they like, no matter how unjust or arbitrary this policy may be. She never backed this up, moving on to argue that it’s undemocratic and unjust to place immigration policy in the hands of private citizens like employers. While I agree it would be concerning if we allowed private companies or citizens to grant citizenship to anyone they like, that clearly has nothing to do with open borders: open borders is not open citizenship.

Newland’s arguments amounted to assuming that governments have the authority to discriminate against foreigners in any way they like because foreigners are not citizens. This is extreme; surely Newland and I imagine Unz would draw the line at allowing the government to impose the death penalty on foreigners who illegally immigrate. But Bryan, Wadhwa and I would move that line a little more: we draw the line at allowing the government to force its own citizens to discriminate against foreigners in hiring and firing decisions. We draw the line at forcing people to face arbitrary rules and punishment simply to hold down their job or live with their families. Governments can discriminate against foreigners in all other sorts of ways; as Bryan proposed, governments can even charge foreigners a fee or surtax for immigration. If it is unjust to murder someone for the crime of being born in the wrong country, it is also unjust to use armed force to deprive them of a job they are qualified to do.

The most effective counter-argument from Bryan and Wadhwa that evening was their concrete illustration of how so many of the citizenist and doomsday-type arguments which Unz and Newland used were old replays of the arguments used against allowing blacks or women into the labour force. The labour market wouldn’t be able to cope. Capital would exploit the new workers at the expense of the old workers, who’d be laid off or see wage cuts. It wouldn’t be fair to existing workers, who society and its institutions have obligations to. None of these are convincing reasons to ban blacks or women from joining the labour force; neither should they convince you that it’s right to ban someone from working somewhere just because of where he was born.

Bryan also pointed out the moral tension in Newland’s seemingly compassionate argument. Her insistence on using armed force to keep out immigrants if the welfare state isn’t able to accommodate them seems self-defeating: if someone wants to do a job, because it makes them better off many times over, why ban them from doing it at the point of a gun? If this person is one of the most economically oppressed people alive today, and if leaving their current job is literally a matter of life or death, why are we so happy to ban them from taking a job that multiplies their income by leaps and bounds, saving them from a life risked working on the floor of a sweatshop that might just collapse one day? Even if we find it unpleasant to witness poverty in our country, how is it anything but cruel to use armed force to keep out those poor people who want to come here simply to better their condition with honest wages?

Ultimately, I think the main elephant in the room that wasn’t quite adequately addressed was the point Newland made about citizenism: that governments are obliged to discriminate in favour of citizens. I think that is quite true, yes, in matters of national security, as she herself said. But the labour market is not a matter of national security any more than the agricultural market or information technology market are. Those markets are surely sensitive and of national importance, which is the excuse the US government uses to impose farm subsidies and import tariffs, and the excuse it uses to ban the export of some encryption technologies. But the government imposes such restrictions selectively and only where warranted. It does not impose a blanket ban on trade. Let’s put aside the question of whether those other restrictions make sense; the point is, there is far more of an open border when it comes to markets of unquestionable national importance like farming and information security, than when it comes to labour. As Wadhwa said, it is crazy that we are having a debate about whether an employer should be allowed to hire whoever he likes, when the only disqualifying factor we can think of is the candidate’s country of birth. If the foreigner isn’t a terrorist or public health threat, what business is it of the government’s to ban its citizens from hiring him?

The citizenist point of view clearly resonated; it came up frequently in the audience Q&A. More than once, someone stood up to demand to know why the US should open the borders at all when it is beset by domestic problems. Nobody on stage seemed to clearly grapple with this to me. I think I can imagine what Bryan would have said if he wanted to thoroughly grapple with this thinking, but his preferred total rejection of all citizenist ideas is not, I imagine, a great rhetorical strategy, especially when you have limited time to make your case.

Yet, in my mind, this citizenist thinking is the most important barrier to break down. Sure, governments have obligations to their citizens that they do not have to foreigners. But governments do not have the obligation to ban foreigners from competing with citizens in a fair marketplace. What purpose does it serve to use armed force against innocent civilians? To call Unz’s apocalyptic scenarios if we open the borders “unrealistic” is too kind. There is no prima facie case for banning an innocent person from taking whatever job he can get in the marketplace in any country of the world. There is no reasonable basis for treating someone who wants to work in a restaurant kitchen or get an education as if they are a common criminal, or worse, an armed enemy of the state. Governments have the authority to impose immigration restrictions — but for the sake of the common good and in response to a clearly defined threat, not for the sake of simply “protecting” citizens from fair competition in the marketplace.

The organisers of the IQ2 debate billed it as a thrilling contest of wits and persuasion. As you can tell from how much space I’ve devoted here to discussing the debate, I’m certainly happy to give them that point. Although I can’t say I’m happy that open borders “lost” the debate, I am glad to have heard some of the best arguments that both sides offer, and glad that a broader audience was able to hear them too. The case for open borders rests on debunking the economic myths and muddled moral thinking which make closed borders so appealing to many. The open borders side might not have won this time, but we gave the closed borders side a good run for their money — and I look forward to seeing the progress we can make here the next time around.

Photo credit for picture of Bryan Caplan and Vivek Wadhwa at the debate: Samuel Lahoz, Intelligence Squared.

Contra Tyler Cowen, closed borders should scare people

Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution recently graced us with a pretty bracing set of criticisms:

In my view the open borders advocates are doing the pro-immigration cause a disservice.  The notion of fully open borders scares people, it should scare people, and it rubs against their risk-averse tendencies the wrong way.  I am glad the United States had open borders when it did, but today there is too much global mobility and the institutions and infrastructure and social welfare policies of the United States are, unlike in 1910, already too geared toward higher per capita incomes than what truly free immigration would bring.  Plunking 500 million or a billion poor individuals in the United States most likely would destroy the goose laying the golden eggs.  (The clever will note that this problem is smaller if all wealthy countries move to free immigration at the same time, but of course that is unlikely.)

Co-blogger Nathan Smith has already taken Tyler to task on the economics, asking Tyler specifically if keyhole solutions like immigration tariffs would address his concerns about the risks of open borders. Tyler issued a laconic response, which referred to Nathan’s suggestions as “surrender”, presumably because any sort of immigration restriction is inconsistent with open borders. Nathan has already  updated his post to address Tyler’s riposte. Since we have covered the economics around Tyler’s thinking fairly comprehensively already, I want to tackle something different: exploring what we mean by open borders, and why an open borders agenda (as opposed to some generic “liberal immigration policy”) matters.

But first off, as reasonable as Tyler’s critique may be, I find it strange in how it implies that restrictionist myths and urban legends deserve more credence than any economist would give them. The tone of Tyler’s criticisms about the risks of open borders strikes me as slightly reminiscent of Paul Krugman’s tone on macroeconomic policy: worded just so, to avoid falling afoul of the economics, without really dissuading people from mistaken beliefs about what the economics says. Paul Krugman hardly ever directly contradicts the mainstream economist consensus that monetary policy can be effective at the zero lower bound. But if you ask any layperson reading Krugman what Krugman believes about the efficacy of monetary policy when interest rates are low, I’d bet you the median layperson thinks Krugman believes monetary policy is totally ineffective, making fiscal policy the only game in town.

Likewise, if you ask him, Tyler is all for liberal immigration policies (as he said himself, right before launching into his critique). He doesn’t buy into the myths that immigrants are fatal drains on the welfare state, or deadly threats to the working class of the developed world. The prevalence of these two myths, in the face of all the economic evidence, is depressingly common; it is as if the lay person believed “all Chinese are opium addicts” or “deporting Jews will reduce the prevalence of poisoned wells”.  Like numerous other economists, Tyler has explicitly declared he repudiates the popular scaremongering myths about immigration’s economic effects. It is all the more surprising then that he declares “people should be scared” of open borders — when, as he’s said time and time again, the main reasons people fear immigration have nothing to do with fact.

To solidify his critique, Tyler says that he is in particular worried about a scenario where:

  • The US is the only country that opens its borders
  • The US opens its borders essentially overnight (i.e., from highly restrictive one day to highly liberal the next)

But other than as thought experiments, I daresay you won’t find any blogger on this site who would say “Yes, that’s a regime I’d be happy with and world that I’d gladly sign up to live in, because the risks are so obviously worth it!” There’s more than one way to skin a cat.  There are plenty of ways to gradually open the world’s borders while mitigating their risks. Here, the three most obvious options off the top of my head, with links to prior Open Borders posts where we’ve explored them (those posts are far from the final word, but they show just how untapped an intellectual well this area of thought is):

  1. Have a steadily increasing immigration quota
  2. Establish free movement unions or areas, similar to customs unions or free trade areas
  3. Abolish deportation as a form of punishment, except in extreme cases

All three options are eminently practical ways of achieving open borders which address the perennial question, “But what on earth would you do with 500 million new American residents tomorrow?” And there are plenty of other practical ways to open the borders; I see no reason to wed ourselves to a particular approach. Maybe some countries will only be able to open their borders via guest worker visa regimes. Maybe others will only be able to open their borders via immigration tariffs or surtaxes of some kind. Still others may be able to get away with true open borders. And I’m confident many countries are capable of mixing and matching. You can imagine a North American free movement union between Canada and the US (or perhaps even, as Barry Goldwater envisioned, such a zone that includes Mexico) which imposes a different regime on immigrants from other countries. The destruction of all conventional immigration policies on some longer timeframe than “within the next 24 hours” is something I’d be happy to see. But even that is only one possible means to the end of open borders.

At this point, you’re probably either scratching your head, or nodding it in agreement with Tyler’s point from earlier about surrender, because what I’ve just outlined may well strike you as utterly inconsistent with the label of “open borders”; after all, what is open borders if not a total rejection of conventional immigration policies? But I don’t define open borders as one particular policy regime or one particular set of immigration laws. I define open borders simply as the principle that, subject to clearly-defined (i.e., not wishy-washy, unclear, or opaque) necessary constraints, people are free to travel, live, and work wherever they want. I am happy to accept any policy regime that satisfies this principle.

Tyler’s critique focuses on an airy-fairy type of open borders which any reasonable person can see is not going to happen, and likely shouldn’t happen at all. So while we’re at it, we might as well criticise a single world government too, since that’s also going to be an absurdly impractical and unreasonable way to open the borders. Where I find Tyler’s critique goes astray is that it focuses on one particular means of opening the borders, instead of the end itself — thereby lending more credence to restrictionist myths about the evils of open borders.

Ultimately, open borders is an end; it is the freedom to author your own life story. It is about being able to sleep safe in your own home, with your family, amongst your community of friends, knowing the government doesn’t have the arbitrary and unchecked power to take you away from all of them tomorrow morning. It is about being safe in the knowledge that the job your employer hired you to do can’t be eliminated by government fiat tomorrow because you made the mistake of being born in the wrong country. All of these are rightful ends for anyone to aspire to. They may well be unattainable on some level, but that is no reason to reject open borders out of hand, any more than the infeasibility of economic “perfect competition” constitutes a reason to reject economic liberalisation. Rejecting open borders because you reject one possible open borders policy is an oddly narrow-minded approach unworthy of an economist or thinker of Tyler’s stature. Even mainstream immigration liberals who remain skeptical of open borders like Matt Yglesias find Tyler’s stance here bemusing.

I can imagine no better label for a world with freedom of movement than a world of open borders. What else captures the sentiment so concisely? If Tyler is so unhappy about calling the goal of free movement “open borders”, he’s free to propose a catchier title. But I really don’t think freedom of movement is something Tyler opposes. He may well have ideas about how to achieve open borders that don’t jive with mine. That’s fine. I’m happy to have a debate about how to achieve open borders. I think Tyler’s on the same page with me here, which is why he kicked off this debate about whether rhetorically, the open borders label is tactically useful.

But while Tyler’s gotten to that point, what concerns me more right now is how far the rest of the world is from reaching that point. Most people don’t give a second thought to the fact that people die every day thanks to the governments we elect and the taxes we pay.  We so blithely accept that the state has total, virtually unlimited power to abuse innocent and unarmed civilians. It’s one thing to disregard a destitute person living in, say, Zambia. None of us is responsible for giving that person a job, or for preventing that person from finding work in Zambia. But it’s a completely different thing to disregard how our tax-funded armed forces treat that person as a life-threatening enemy of the state, simply because he or she tried to find work in our country.

When it’s our money and our political authority being used to prevent that person from finding or holding down a job someone in our country is willing to hire them to do, I have a huge problem with that. The use of armed force against armed force is one thing. The use of armed force against civilian job-seekers or civilians seeking to be with their family is another; it is galling. We would never accept it against those born in our own country. Why do we so easily accept bringing tanks and gunships to bear against those innocents born outside our own country? Once we accept that this is a problem, we might still conclude that there’s no reasonable solution to the immigration problem, and that current policy to risk the lives of unarmed civilians is the best we can hope for. But most people, unlike Tyler, aren’t even willing to accept that this is a problem!

Given Tyler’s libertarian leanings, I imagine he won’t disagree much with me on these points. So it’s all the more puzzling to me then that he slips into the trap of encouraging popular fallacies used to justify the torture and slaughter of innocent immigrants. As Tyler points out, people fear the risks of more liberal immigration. But they will be fearful whether you call it “amnesty”, “comprehensive immigration reform”, or “open borders”. And their fears, in almost every single case, will be far more grounded in speculation and conjecture than any empirical fact. Tiny, statistically insignificant effects on a subsegment of the native working population will be blown up into “They took our jerbs!”-style paranoia. Economists quite bravely stuck their necks out for the cause of free trade, despite knowing the popular fears and risks. What keeps them from preaching the same consensus they’ve reached on immigration?

Putting modern economics aside, reasonable people in the US once feared letting blacks into the labour market (they had this “reasonable” fear that freed blacks would lynch them in retaliation for centuries of slavery — for what it’s worth, a more reasonable fear than the notion that Latin American immigration would turn the US political system into that of Chavez’s Venezuela). Pretty reasonable people once feared the impacts of letting women into the labour market. People fear any kind of change. Citing fears instead of facts is no way to make a reasonable policy argument.

It’s not news to anyone that the notion of open borders is scary. Dramatic policy changes should scare any reasonable person, because that’s only human. But scariness in of itself is not a plausible reason to come down firmly on one side or another. Many historical struggles for justice and human rights were shockingly frightening. Abolishing slavery or allowing women into the labour market constituted far more radical and scary reforms than would be dramatically liberalising immigration quotas, or dramatically halting most deportations. You tell me, what’s more dangerously untried and radical: allowing an illiterate, newly-freed black to buy his own land and farm his own crops in 1870; allowing a woman to build an aeroplane in 1940; or allowing a Pole to work on a UK construction site in 2010?

And on the flip side, it’s impossible to ignore how radically totalitarian is the immigration status quo. None of us can condone an immigration system that bans a woman from attending her daughter’s wedding because it suspects she’ll want to immigrate (never mind that, legally present or not, she won’t be eligible for most state entitlements). None of us can condone a legal system that gives government uncontrolled, unchecked, arbitrary power to destroy jobs, families, and homes in one fell swoop. I can’t see anyone signing up to defend a legal system that arbitrarily decides who you can love or who you can work for based on which emperor technically ruled the piece of dirt your ancestors happened to live on two centuries ago.

As the recent tragedy at Lampedusa, Italy illustrates, our legal systems often as good as murder people — people whose lives are so full of suffering that they willingly risk death to immigrate to our jails. We force people to choose between dying in sweatshops or dying at the hands of our border patrols. As some Syrians trying to flee chemical warfare are learning first-hand today, our ostensibly humane laws declare that it is better to force people to be gassed by a dictator than to let them try to make ends meet in our countries. How is any of this not radical? How is it not frightening that we supposedly have to resort to these measures to make the world safe for “civilisation”?

Are we truly happy and safe today because our border guards force Bangladeshis to die in sweatshops and Syrians to suffocate under clouds of sarin? Yes, inasmuch as today’s policies are inefficient and inhumane, the right solution isn’t tearing down every guard post and every border fence in the world within the next 24 hours. But beginning to think about a good alternative to closed borders consistent with both security and dignity is surely a moral imperative. I don’t think any of us want to live in a world that has to destroy human rights in order to preserve them. The problem with the traditional liberal approach towards immigration reform is that, implicitly or explicitly, it embraces closed borders. It might want to open them a little, but it has no sound reasoning (other than “this feels right, I guess”) for picking a trade off point between open and closed borders.

Open borders matters because it is the only paradigm that rejects the fallacious and unethical presumptions of closed borders, and the only paradigm that provides a sound moral basis for moving towards liberal immigration policies in the first place. Open borders presumes a right to move, one that can be overridden as necessary. Closed borders presumes a total ban on movement, one that can be overridden as necessary — a ban nevertheless so strong, it has to be enforced by punishments that destroy mutual employment, family, and community relationships; punishments that sometimes result in the taking of human life. Tyler may well draw a different line than I, or many others, do about what sorts of immigration restrictions are necessary. But I believe we are all on the same page: that people should be free to move, and that this right should only be denied when clearly necessary.

Defenders of the status quo ban essentially assert that a fascist totalitarian regime which kills unarmed civilians is the only way to preserve civilisation and safeguard people’s lives and property. Maybe they think our policies should kill slightly fewer people per year, but they otherwise are comfortable with the status quo as it is. Baldly saying ,”We need to open the borders”, forces a rethink of how readily we can accept the status quo. We know there’s a problem today, a problem that costs the human race thousands of lives and billions of dollars every year. Have we truly explored every possible alternative to the totalitarian border regime we have today?

Writing off open borders as an unattainable goal without exploring all avenues we have to get there I think amounts to saying “It is just and right that we force people to die under a cloud of poison gas or in a sweatshop’s fiery inferno, because that is an appropriate punishment for daring to be born in the wrong country.” Sure, that’s a strawman, since no reasonable person wants to sign on to that trade-off. But that trade-off is exactly the one our governments make in our name every damn day, and it’s a trade-off they’re making based far more on “scary” prejudices than it is on any evidence or fact. Opening the borders is the only way we can put an end to the unholy, inhumane slaughter of innocents — the slaughter of slightly less fortunate people who, same as you and me, just want a better life for themselves and their family. Before we reject open borders, and say there’s nothing we can do to stop the killing and dying, let’s at least be sure we’ve covered all our bases.

Economists want more immigration, why don’t you?

A perennial assertion of open borders skeptics is that they are the voice of reason and empirics in the immigration debate, while open borders advocates are soft-headed people thinking with their hearts instead of their brains. So this humble blogger spent a Friday lunch hour in Washington, D.C. attending a Cato Institute panel titled What Economists Think About Immigration. Incidentally, the panel was broadcast on C-SPAN, and thanks to them, you can also view the full panel online.

Of the four people on stage, only one was a new face to me:

  1. Alex Nowrasteh (moderator of the panel, Cato Institute researcher, and an Open Borders blogger)
  2. Madeline Zavodny (panelist, chair of the Agnes Scott College economics department)
  3. Ethan Lewis (panelist, associate professor of economics at Dartmouth, and my former econometrics professor)
  4. Michael Clemens (panelist, Center for Global Development researcher, and the man who single-handedly changed the way I think about immigration)

Zavogny presented first, talking about high-skilled immigrants to the US and how they contribute economically to the US. I think even open borders skeptics tend to favour high-skilled immigration. Those who don’t are either unmoored from reality, or openly admit that they don’t have a hard empirical reason for their belief that high-skilled immigrants should be banned from taking good jobs. So I won’t cover Zavogny’s presentation in depth.

Clemens presented third, but similar to Zavogny, I don’t think he covered much terribly new ground in the debate (at least, that would be new to someone already familiar with the academic debate on immigration’s empirical impacts). Clemens presented a version of his double world GDP lecture, covering the usual ground: immense gains to migrants, doubling world GDP, banning “brain drain” dehumanises immigrants and doesn’t help anyone, and ending restrictions on freedom of movement may seem crazy, but crazier things have happened (see: the abolition of slavery).

Lewis, on the other hand, presented some really compelling and new material. To me, one of the new things was how strongly he feels about immigration! I suppose econometrics does not lend itself to very passionate lectures, but although I knew he studied immigration while I was a student of his, I had no inkling of the depth of his support for reducing immigration restrictions.  (Full disclosure: I was also a student of his wife, Elizabeth Cascio, who supervised my senior seminar and final economics paper.) Even more new and exciting to me: Lewis presented some of his latest work, which finds that immigration has boosted the income of Americans across the board — even low-income Americans.

Perhaps the most commonly-cited harm of immigration is its impact on the wages and employment of natives. Immigration supposedly reduces wages across the board. This is a complete myth, which no economist would sign on to (at least, none that I’ve read, including prominent skeptics). There is concern among a few economists that immigration harms income and employment for low-earning natives. However, few find this result, and most that do have been subject to various criticisms: the impact they find is extremely small (the most popular estimate here would suggest that 20 years of immigration to the US resulted in a cumulative 3% decline in low-earning natives’ wages); it’s sensitive to the removal of a few data points; it doesn’t account for how capital investments  react to the influx of labour; it relies on data from a period when other things driving reduction in wages, such as the decline of trade unions, could be confounding the results.

Lewis presents a slide (at roughly the 25:30 mark in the C-SPAN recording) suggesting that not only has immigration increased the wages of high-skilled natives, as you would expect — it has also increased the wages of low-skilled natives. Why does the wage data suggest this? What plausible mechanisms are there? Lewis suggests two major things:

  1. Changes in the use of capital — firms respond to an influx of immigrants by investing less in capital than they had planned, creating jobs for low-skilled natives as well as immigrants and ameliorating the potential negative wage impacts for low-skilled natives
  2. Immigrants compete in a different labour market than natives — immigrants whose English fluency is limited or non-existent will compete among one another for jobs, and natives emerge unscathed thanks to their English skills

Lewis presents the arguments for these mechanisms quite well, so I’d urge you to watch his talk yourself. In particular, he has a number of interesting charts backing all these points up. My understanding is he has a forthcoming paper that will fully flesh out the ideas in his presentation. My take is this is just one data point, but if you’re analytically evaluating the likely outcomes of more immigration, seeing this ought to make you revise upward your assessment of the probability that immigration helps or doesn’t harm natives. And given the existing literature, that assessment should already have been assigned a fairly high probability in the first place — certainly not the 0% chance that so often seems to be assumed in immigration debates.

Lewis wraps up his talk by urging the audience to think beyond the current policy debate in Washington, which focuses today primarily on whether to regularise the 11 million unauthorised immigrants currently living in the US. He points out that it makes absolutely no sense to ban people from migrating in the first place, and given the immense gains to the migrants, even if you don’t believe his estimates, you should be happy to enforce a tax or fee on them that captures some of those gains, to ensure all natives benefit from immigration.

Economists overwhelmingly reject popular myths that immigrants are economic harms. Yet these myths refuse to die. We no longer believe that Jews drink the blood of babies, that Chinese eat rats, or that Irish are just drunk beggars. Why do we believe that people born on the other side of an invisible line called the national border are an incredible harm to us, while people born on the other side of an invisible line demarcating a county or province are perfectly guiltless? Both types of people are as likely to “steal” our jobs and drive down our wages. But one person we call a criminal for crossing that invisible line; the other, we call a good citizen.

I can’t echo my former professor’s words enough. We need to think beyond today’s debates about immigration. The fact is, today’s debates rely on ignorant assumptions about immigration. They assume immigrants are “job thieves”. Having a debate on these terms is like arguing whether we should let more Jews in or hold back lest they start drinking our children’s blood or poisoning our wells. We’re starting from premises so utterly wrong that there’s no point having the debate.

Of course the US should have a process for legalising people who’ve lived in the US for a long period of time. If they ever did any harm by crossing an invisible line 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, as long as they aren’t committing any crimes and harming anyone today, we should live and let live. This is so basic that as Lewis says, we need to think bigger. We need to reject the myths of the past, and adopt a reality-based immigration policy — one that embraces all human beings as people with dreams and goals and potential and contributions that will enrich us all and build our communities.

An interesting piece of anonymous feedback

A few months ago, Open Borders got an interesting piece of anonymous feedback from somebody who’d filled the effect on you survey. I’ll quote the feedback in full, with minor spelling and grammar fixes and some links added.

It actually didn’t change my mind in any way. The great effect was caused by reading Econlog, where Bryan Caplan recommended Michal Clemens’ article. When I first came here, I was already convinced that open borders was by far the most important issue in the world agenda. I do think, however, that the blog has many powerful arguments which I try to convey to other people, which is the main reason I am a regular reader.

I would like to use this space to make a topic suggestion: a discussion about economists priorities, bearing in mind the recent Economics Nobel Prize to Roth and Shapley. The last Nobel Prize is being regarded as one which was awarded for real impact in the world. Although I think that is the best standard for a Nobel Prize award, I disagree that the work of Roth and Shapley meet this standard. However important the facilitation of kidney transplants may be, and it indeed is important, it bears no comparison to doubling the world gdp. That made me think about how inefficiently economics, which is supposed to be the science of allocating scarce resources, allocates its scarce resources. It has been almost a year since a respected economist wrote that opening borders might double world gdp. There hasn’t been any reaction near to proportional. When it was reported that neutrinos might have traveled faster than the speed of light, all newspapers in the world had extensive coverage. The scientific community rapidly reacted, doubting it could be possible. With regard to migration, most economists never cared to address the paper. My suggestion, then, is this: you should not focus on converting non-influential people to the cause of open borders. You should focus on making economists speak about migration. Maybe post report cards of every economics blogger you can find on his/her stance on migration. If I were doing it, I wouldn’t even address whether or not the blogger supported open borders or not, but whether or not he gave proper attention to the issue. These people, like everyone else, are vain, and probably will read what you say about them. If they respond, their readers will become acquainted with your compelling case. Thank you very much.

Some thoughts on this:

I broadly agree with the fact that it’s disappointing that few economists, even labor economists, devote their energies to studying the global impact of migration. Despite the fact that there is an economist consensus in favor of at least somewhat expanded migration, there is not much interest in the empirics of radically more open borders than the status quo. Often, the energies of economists who study migration are devoted to more narrow questions, such as whether immigrants suppress the wages of natives, framed and addressed using an analytical nationalist perspective. In his paper (linked above), Michael Clemens suggested an agenda for research into migration that would be focused on people rather than statistical categories such as nations, and that would pay more attention to the overall effects of migration both as immigration and emigration. Clemens has co-authored papers on the place premium and income per natural, which are good conceptual tools for understanding migration. In his recent open borders autobiography, Bryan Caplan wrote about how both his undergraduate education and his graduate school training failed to convey to him the magnitude of the economic impact of immigration restrictions:

By the time I started my undergraduate education at UC Berkeley, then, I was a staunch yet shallow devotee of free immigration. I simply lacked the knowledge base to understand the magnitude of the issue. My subsequent coursework did nothing to alleviate my ignorance.

After finishing at Berkeley, I moved on to Princeton’s Ph.D. economics program. Although Princeton is known for its labor economics group, I learned virtually nothing about immigration from the Princeton faculty – or my fellow students. The budding labor economists were far more interested in estimating the effects of education on earnings than the effect of immigration restrictions on global prosperity.

Adam Ozimek also made the same point in the context of economics bloggers in a blog post on Forbes, to which my co-blogger Nathan Smith responded.

Although I personally haven’t discussed economists’ lack of focus on migration, I have dealt with a related issue: libertarians’ lack of focus on open borders advocacy (see part 1 and part 2 of my planned three-post series on the subject).

So I’m already quite sympathetic to this piece of feedback.

The suggestion to create “economist report card” suggestion is an interesting one, and one that Open Borders might pursue at some point in time, but we don’t quite have the manpower yet. But perhaps some other enterprising individual or group could do this, or point to a simple way of doing this.

The parallel with Roth and Shapley’s Nobel Prize on kidney donations is also interesting. As my co-blogger John Lee has pointed out in private correspondence, bans on legal sales of kidneys, just like immigration restrictions, prevent people around the world from engaging in mutually beneficial win-win transactions that save lives. Roth and Shapley figured out an innovative partial workaround that would help some kidney donors match some kidney recipients. Perhaps there is an economist, entrepreneur, or philanthropist who will similarly find more creative workarounds to help undo part of the damage caused by immigration restrictions, and will be admired in a later era for his or her contribution to humanity.

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?” »