Tag Archives: guest worker programs

Misinterpreting Growth of Immigrant Populations

I would like to explain an effect that I think is responsible for a lot of misconceptions regarding immigration. If I am right, my explanation shows that some common explanations, while not being entirely false, are mostly irrelevant, or at least of second-order importance. And this also means that conclusions based on such explanations, are off the mark. Explanations that naively extrapolate trends can be especially misleading.

Let me start with an example of what I mean. In 1961, the Federal Republic of Germany and Turkey struck a deal that Turkish “guest workers” (Gastarbeiter) could be hired by German businesses. There were similar treaties also with other countries such as Italy (1955), Greece (1960), or Yugoslavia (1968). 1961 was the year the GDR built the Berlin wall, so rather suddenly the influx of East Germans came to a halt (about 200,000 in 1960). The West German economy was running at full speed with 8.2% annual GDP growth in the 1950s. German businesses were desperately trying to hire additional workers as unemployment fell to below 1%.

So from 1961 to 1971, about 650,000 Turkish guest workers were hired, and until 1976, this grew to about 825,000. What happened in the meantime was that on November 23, 1973, the German government (Social Democrats & Free Democrats) decided to suspend the treaties with Turkey and other countries (except Italy) after a sharp economic downturn and rising unemployment. So no more workers could be hired. In addition, guest workers in Germany were given a choice either to return home or stay permanently. Family reunion was still possible. Only about 135,000 of the 825,000 Turkish guest workers in 1976 were women. Assuming that 135,000 of the male guest workers were married to them and the others would bring in an additional 535,000 women via family reunion, the total would amount to 1.4 million adult immigrants of Turkish descent. Since a return home was encouraged via payments, you would have to subtract a certain number of returnees, though.

And here is what baffles a lot of people: numbers kept going up after 1973. There are now (as per 2013), 2.8 million people of Turkish descent in Germany, roughly a doubling or even more if you assume there was some return migration. Most of the increase came long after 1973, e.g. there were only 2.1 million people with Turkish citizenship in 1998 (that’s when naturalization became rather easy, so up until this point Turkish citizenship usually meant someone was an immigrant or descended from one).

Here are some of the usual suspects to explain the rise: diaspora dynamics, chain migration via family reunion, men marrying women from Turkey and bringing them in, very high birth rates, maybe encouraged by generous welfare benefits, etc. While there is certainly anecdotal evidence for most of this, and also data supporting some of the claims, I think this all is at best a sideshow, and so further conclusions built on such explanations are mostly irrelevant. If I am right, there is nothing baffling about the observation at all, and the explanation is actually rather simple. It is only that a naive analysis tends to overlook the effect I will explain now.

I will work with stylized facts, but the results should not be materially different if you calibrate the model with exact data. Let’s assume that in one year 1 million people immigrate. For the moment let’s also suppose they are 50/50 men and women. To make things more transparent, I assume for the moment that immigrants are 0 years old (of course, that is false, but I will show later how to fix this).

What happens to the initial immigrants over time? Here’s a stylized graph for the percentages over time:

Percentage Alive

So, no one dies until age 51. Then 1% die per year until age 76 (i.e. a quarter), and 3% per year until age 101 (the rest). This is not entirely true as a certain fraction actually die already before 51, and the real graph is certainly not piecewise linear. However, it is not far off, and life expectation comes out slightly above 80 years which is quite close to reality. I also make the simplifying assumption that men and women have the same mortality. This is not true either, but again not too far off.

How about children? Again I make a simplifying assumption which is roughly in line with reality. The following percentages will have a child at the age on the x-axis (lumping men and women together, so per person, not woman):


The peak is at 30 years, positive rates are from ages 16 to 44. The percentages add up to 100%, i.e. everyone (men and women) has exactly one child or two children per woman. Since no one dies in the relevant age groups (by assumption above), this means you have exactly replacement fertility (that’s why I adjusted reality a little to get confusing effects out of the way). To stress the point: there is no growth that I have built into the model. As you will see, no fancy birth rates are needed.

What happens to the one million initial immigrants in year 0? Since I assumed they are 0 years old, they won’t have any children right away, but starting after 15 years they will. And after some more time, their children will have children, etc. So the immigrant population (including descendents) will develop like this (millions):


Don’t be fooled by the slight downward trend at about 100 years. There is some oscillation, but the number the line converges to is about 2.76. So over time, the one million will grow to 2.76 million. Children and grandchildren come on top. However, initial immigrants eventually die out, so great-grandchildren and further generations only make a minor difference, and the whole population settles into a steady-state. All in all you have almost a tripling, and that’s although I assumed replacement fertility, i.e. no growth at all!

Let’s fix the one unrealistic assumption. Of course, immigrants do not come at age 0. They come perhaps at age 20 (or 30 if you prefer this). But that’s very easy to fix. Just start at 20 (or 30) in the above graph instead of 0. There may be some children that were born before immigration. Add them in under the heading of family reunion which increases the size of initial immigration some. For immigration at age 20, this means that the factor will be slightly less than 2.76. If you take immigration at age 30 instead, then this will boost initial immigration by about 50%, so the factor is somewhat below 2. Note: 2 was about the factor we had for immigrants from Turkey to Germany (2.8 million people of Turkish descent now versus about 1.4 million initial immigrants, but maybe also some return migration). And I did not need any assumptions about massive further family reunion, brides from Turkey, gigantic birth rates, etc.

Here are some conclusions that are easy to read from the graph. Let me assume that immigrants come at age 20 (i.e. the graph starts at year 20). If you like some other age, adapations do not change the conclusions materially which are stylized anyway:

  • Since there was only immigration in year 0 (i.e. 20 in the above graph), if the government decides to shut down immigration after that, then numbers will keep rising for over 50 years. Restrictionists will be stark staring mad because they are looking for loopholes as an explanation. There should also be calls for even stricter enforcement like a clamp-down on family reunions (although that is not possible by assumption).
  • Over one generation (by construction on average 30 years), numbers will double. So this seems like a population with an extraordinary growth rate of 2.4% per year (for a doubling). If a population in steady-state (!) were to grow at such rate, it would mean a fertility of 4 per woman (by construction it is exactly 2 per woman). In the first years the increase is even steeper, more like 3% which corresponds to a fertility of about 5 in steady-state. So restrictionists will be looking for the huge families and come up with cultural explanations. And that would even apply here, where it is false by assumption. Higher fertility would not be unimportant, but compared to an additional perceived fertility of 2 or even 3 via the effect it will be second-order for a moderate divergence in fertility.
  • After one generation, and even two generations, restrictionists may simply extrapolate the trend and conclude how the immigrant population will grow indefinitely and swamp everybody else. However, again by construction, there is no growth, and things will level off eventually. So the extrapolation is totally unwarranted.
  • After about 50 years, the baffling thing might be that numbers stagnate (as is the case for people of Turkish descent in Germany by now). So there will be amazement over how that could happen.
  • And one final conclusion that restrictionists usually miss (maybe if they did not, they would have to be very dishonest about the other claims): If you let in one million in the beginning, you will have 2.76 million descendents eventually. Not only the initial immigrants come, but their whole part in the population pyramid at home. (There is a twist that I will explore in a further post: this also means that all those people are missing in the source country.) So if restrictionists understood the effect, they could scale everything up by a factor of 2.76 (or whatever it is exactly calibrating with actual data) and make their stories even scarier.

Just as an extra service, here are the headlines in Germany for the next decades:

  • 2015/2016: There are 1 million Syrian refugees to Germany.
  • 2017: We can’t handle so many people and will close the borders for Syrians. (I am optimistic this will not happen wholesale, but then I want to stay true to the above example.)
  • 2037: How could that happen? We let in just 1 million and clamped down on further immigration, now there are 2 million people here of Syrian descent! Are they smuggling more people in? A reporter has noticed a Syrian family with 10 children. It’s probably their culture. Let’s try to clamp down even more on migration from Syria.
  • 2057: Now there are more than 2.5 million people of Syrian descent. Soon everybody will be Syrian here. What went wrong?
  • 2067: Strange, they always had those extremely large families. Are they now migrating back to Syria?

Some further remarks


  • The basic effect is known as “population momentum,” i.e. population growth has a certain inertia. Even if fertility changes (goes up or down), it takes some time before population growth changes to a new level (higher or lower). You can understand the effect in the following way: if you have a population with no growth, but 1% extra children in one year. Then this is equivalent to 1% immigrants at age zero. So you have the above build-up. There will be another 1% after one generation, and another 1% after two generations (minus some initial “immigrants” who have died in the meantime), and then it levels off.
  • The effect that I describe is not just population momentum. My main point is about how population momentum is easily misinterpreted in the context of immigration. If you have an extra 1% children in one year, and it builds up to 2.76% extra population over time, anyone who looked at the development would speak of about 1% population growth per generation, which is not very impressive. The reference point here is the whole population. If the extra 1% population are immigrants, however, one may be inclined to take a different reference point: initial immigrants. So the same development would be described as a growth of about 100% per generation, which is much more dramatic. While the two cases are parallel, the perception is quite different.
  • There is an extra effect that makes the perception even more dramatic. Since immigrants do not immigrate at age 0, but 20, 25, or 30, the first generation appears shortened. It does not take about 30 years for a doubling, but only 5 or 10 years. This adds even more drama. Especially, if someone does a sloppy analysis by comparing data for only two data points (which journalists or the general population are maybe prone to do).

Are restrictive guest worker programs in employers’ interests?

This post revisits a subject I last wrote about in December 2012. In that post, I discussed Daniel Costa’s critique of guest worker programs as they exist now, and noted how moves in the direction of more liberal guest worker programs of the sort considered on this site would be less susceptible to those problems than the status quo. Discussions of the (real or alleged) worker exploitation found in guest worker programs are often used as justification for ending the programs and moving instead to a more closed border regime.

Below are some examples of critiques of guest worker programs:

The critiques span a range of perspectives, and need to be addressed in terms of their explicit claims, philosophical assumptions, and tacit connotations. For what it’s worth, I think many of the factual claims are correct, but some of the connotations are mistaken. In this post, I concentrate on a specific claim, usually subtextual, but occasionally explicit, namely:

Guest worker programs where workers are tied to a specific employer and cannot easily move to other employers without losing their legal status in the country:

  1. allow employers to exploit workers in ways they wouldn’t if the workers were free to move around,
  2. benefit employers at the expense of both migrant workers and the native workers who do similar jobs, and
  3. exist in their current form (as opposed to a more liberal form) precisely because they allow employers to exploit workers.

(for a related discussion, and some articulation of these points, see here).

I think (1) is true but the emphasis is off, (2) is true only in certain circumstances, and (3) is probably not true. Continue reading “Are restrictive guest worker programs in employers’ interests?” »

NAFTA’s Labor Agreement

Last November President Obama was heckled by pro-migrant activists demanding that his administration take action to halt deportations. The President responded that he was unable to take further steps and that this was an issue Congress had to tackle.

One wonders if the President has considered using administrative changes to ease use of the North American Free Trade Agreement’s (NAFTA) labor agreement.

NAFTA dealt primarily with reducing barriers in goods and services, but it also provided for a minor reduction in barriers to labor as well. Canadian and Mexican professionals may acquire the non-immigrant TN status to work and live in the United States in renewable increments of three years. The relevant text can be found in Chapter 16 of the NAFTA treaty. Only a handful of professions are covered by the status and most of them require bachelor degrees, which means that expanding the TN status would not provide much aid to lower skilled migrant-hopefuls but it would nonetheless be a move towards more open borders.

At minimum the President’s administration could seek to ease the application process for the TN status. Currently most TN status holders leave the United States in order to renew their TN status in an US consulate or embassy in their home countries. This is costly to do and many would benefit from being able to apply from within the United States. A process to apply does exist within the United States, but it is rarely exercised due to the difficulty of doing so.

The President’s administration could also seek to allow those eligible for TN status to self-apply to renew the status without the need for cooperation from their employer. The TN status is quasi-portable; when first applying a TN holder must prove that they have a job offer in the United States but can change employers in the interluding time provided they file out some paperwork. Unfortunately the need to have their employers  help them renew their status limits the portability of the status. Allowing self-petition would remove this and make the status fully portable.

TN status is currently valid for increments of three years. The President’s administration could expand this to five or ten years. During the Bush administration the status was changed from one to three years, so Obama would merely be following in his predecessors’ action.

If the President was especially ambitious he could seek to expand the list of professions covered by the TN status. Unlike other proposals here the President would have to negotiate the terms of expansion with Mexico, Canada, and Congress. President Obama is down in Mexico discuss the future of NAFTA, could it be he is already toying with the idea of using NAFTA for a broader labor agreement?

Expansion of the TN status should be an attractive route and it is surprising that both successive Presidents and open border advocates have ignored it. The TN status  is already part of the US code (Title 8 Section 214.6) and no further enabling legislation from Congress would be necessary. The President’s administration would not be creating a new status using executive order, it would merely be easing the administration process of a well established aspect of US immigration law.

Regular opponents of increased immigration would be hard pressed to argue against expanding NAFTA’s labor provisions. The President could potentially increase the list of eligible professions, but the TN status would ultimately only benefit skilled workers. There is plenty of rhetoric against unskilled migrants, but it is rare to find the same passion against skilled migrants. The TN status does not provide a pathway to citizenship to its holder and therefore denies its holder the possibility of benefiting from most US welfare programs or voting. The types of migrants that come under the TN status are the most favorable ones; well educated middle income professionals who are here to do business.

Easing use of the NAFTA’s labor agreement could not easily be portrayed as misuse either. NAFTA was meant to reduce trade barriers between the US, Canada and Mexico. Both the letter and spirit of NAFTA would be carried out by easing the application process for the TN status. Is it fateful that the trade treaty celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

The TN status has no numerical caps. Mexican applicants were numerically capped at its inception, but said cap was removed in 2004. Increasing the number of TN status holders would not reduce the number of visas available elsewhere and should not cause any significant backlogging of other visa applications.

In 2012 733,692 individuals were admitted into the US under TN status, mostly for short periods. Only a relative few reside in the United States for significant portions of time.

Source: DHS Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2012

No labor certification process is required for those applying for the TN status.  The low number of TN status holders relative to the supply of potential applicants suggests that the administration is being stringent in who it grants the TN status to. It also implies that many more individuals could TN status if the President’s administration eased its application procedures.

If done properly an extension of NAFTA’s labor provisions could lead to the the three member nations agreeing to reform the treaty to include lower skilled labor as well or possibly extending NAFTA membership to the Caribbean and Central America countries. These would all be marginal moves, but they may wet  things enough for a slippery slope towards open borders in the long run.

Joseph Carens on the ethics of immigration: part 1

In academic philosophical circles, Joseph Carens is well known as a proponent of open borders. His 1987 article Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders was included in our pro-open borders reading list since around the time of the site launch, and co-blogger Nathan blogged about the paper back in April 2012. We’ve referenced Carens quite a bit in subsequent blog posts.

I recently learned that Carens has given the philosophical issues surrounding migration the book-length treatment they deserve in the book The Ethics of Immigration (Oxford University Press, 2013). This is the first book-length treatment I’m aware of that deals with migration from a philosophical perspective and is written by a single author (UPDATE: As Paul Crider points out in the comments, Philosophies of Exclusion by Phillip Cole is an earlier book on the subject that I’d forgotten about. I haven’t read it, though). I was quite excited to hear about it, and read it with great eagerness. I found much food for thought in the book. In this blog post series (which may have two, three, or more parts, depending on the amount of material I end up wanting to write up) I will go over the parts of Carens’ book I found most interesting.

#1: Broad strategy followed by Carens

The book is not largely a defense of open borders. In fact, while the author does defend open borders, this is only a couple of chapters near the end of the book, and these chapters operate on somewhat different starting assumptions from the rest of the book. Rather, Carens spends the first ten chapters arguing within the status quo framework, i.e., assuming that it is just that the world is carved into nation-states and that states can exercise significant discretionary control over migration, but he also assumes that these are constrained by what he (inaptly?) terms “democratic principles” — more on that in #3. In the last four chapters, he critiques the status quo itself, and argues for open borders. He also defends himself against the charge of Trojan Horse-ing his way through. Chapters 1-8 come to many mainstream pro-migrant but migration policy-neutral conclusions, while Chapters 9-10 argue for for the right to family reunification and some rights for refugeees. Echoing Nathan’s view that a strong case for freer migration and more migrant rights can be made from communitarian premises, the bulk of Chapters 1-8 argues for migrant rights on communitarian grounds. This isn’t surprising, because communitarian grounds may be the only defensible framework that can simultaneously justify nation-states in the broad sense while still being compatible with moral egalitarian conditions. Roughly, the worldview Carens embraces is that everybody is equal, but many aspects of people’s rights are membership-specific (in relation to their communities) rather than universal moral claims, thereby permitting differential treatment (in some respects) by a state of tourists, temporary migrants, permanent residents, and citizens.

#2: Alleged target audience

Carens claims that his book is targeted at the median resident of the democracies of Europe and North America. This is an improvement over most migration-related books, that are often singularly focused on one specific country. However, I found Carens’ claim disingenuous in two ways:

  • I don’t see a good reason why universal moral arguments should not be applicable to people outside Europe or North America, and Carens’ limited targeting may be viewed as a version of the soft bigotry of low expectations — i.e., that people in India or Malaysia or Australia or Japan or Saudi Arabia or Singapore or Hong Kong or the UAE need to be held to a lower moral bar with respect to migration policy. Carens occasionally cites policies in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, UAE, etc. as policies that no sensible country devoted to “democratic principles” (more on that catchword later) would follow. Contra Carens, I believe not only that the case for open borders is universal, but also that any case that can be made for or against various migrant rights is universal.
  • Carens gives too much credit to the median resident of Europe or North America. The median resident doesn’t buy tracts from a university press that spend 300+ pages pondering over philosophical questions. About 15% of Americans are judged college-ready, and my guess is that the college-readiness benchmark would be a rough minimum to get through Carens’ book (you’d also need to be very interested in the subject). There’d of course be exceptions, but the percentage would overall be less than, not more than, 15%. This per se isn’t worrisome — authors often claim that their works have wider reach than they actually have — but it’s related to other things problematic about Carens’ logic.

#3: The “democratic principles” catchphrase

Carens uses the catchphrase “democratic principles” to describe beliefs that the median resident of Europe or North America might hold, but which seems to me to be (largely) shorthand for the ethical intuitions that people Carens interacts regularly with hold. To be clear, I’m no expert on the median person either, but a lot of the claims that Carens makes about how ordinary people think seem a bit off to me, judging by polling data I’ve seen. I feel like he’s slippery in roughly the same way Michael Huemer is when making claims about reasonable starting points for intuitions that most people hold.

For instance, Joseph Carens argues that it is obvious to any observer today (or at any rate, any observer who is faithful to “democratic principles”) that the Chinese Exclusion Act (CEA) was wrong, because it is obviously wrong to discriminate on the basis of nationality. While I agree that the CEA was wrong (see this lengthy blog post by co-blogger Chris Hendrix), it’s unclear to me that it’s significantly more “obvious” than open borders at large. If you embrace the principle that it’s wrong to discriminate on the basis of nationality to the point that the CEA is obviously wrong, haven’t you more or less embraced open borders (insofar as closed borders discriminate on the basis of nationality in a fairly fundamental way)? Further, to the extent that the CEA is condemnable on the grounds that it discriminated between different foreign nationalities, couldn’t the same be said of free movement within the EU (in that it discriminates between “other EU countries” and “non-EU countries” in its admissions policy)? Empirically, too, it’s unclear that people today have a strong view against the Chinese Exclusion Act. My impression is that the majority of Americans, if polled today, would be largely indifferent and consider it morally acceptable (even if unwise), rather than recoil in horror at the idea that such an act was passed a while back.

The remaining points are all arguments Carens makes presupposing the status quo framework, not necessarily ones he supports in reality, though every argument he makes moves in the “pro-migrant” and/or “open borders” direction once he takes off the hat of presupposing the status quo.

#4: Carens’ argument in favor of local legal equality

In a bow of sorts to territorialism and local inequality aversion, Carens argues that the same legal rules should apply to everybody within the physical territory, as opposed to a multi-tiered legal system. Carens does not propose an actual set of optimal policies, arguing that doing so would be outside the scope of the book. Rather, he uses a meta level argument. He argues that when a government (at a national or provincial level) chooses policies based on a balancing of considerations (e.g., choosing a minimum wage or labor regulation) the optimal policy that applies should be the same for natives as well as non-natives. Therefore, it makes no sense to have different labor regulations or policies for citizens and non-citizen permanent residents and temporary workers (a different policy for tourists is acceptable, because they’re not supposed to work). For instance, if minimum wage requirements are wrong, then they should not be applied to citizens either.

I see two objections to this, the first of which Carens anticipates to some extent, but the second he does not:

  • It can be argued that different subdivisions of the population based on citizenship/residency are statistically different, so the best balancing of interests would suggest different optima for them. This can be analogized to how the optimal labor regulation changes with time — changes with time change the nature of the labor work being done, or the skill level, and therefore change optimal labor regulation. Similarly, different segments of the labor force have different labor needs and different optimal laws.

    Carens addresses this (largely in implicit fashion). He argues that segmenting the force this way is not appropriate, any more than having different labor laws by race is appropriate. If different laws are needed, they should be based on the relevant criterion — occupation or skill level — rather than migration status. To the extent that natives and migrants have different optima, the best overall optimum should be considered.

    This, however, raises an interesting point that Carens does not acknowledge. To the extent that migration policy changes the composition of the labor force, it changes optimal labor policies for the whole labor force. If you’re having a single general minimum wage, and the value of the minimum wage depends on the skill level of the population as a whole, then if large number of people at low skill levels migrate, this could move the optimal minimum wage downward (for instance), for the population as a whole, including natives. Carens’ tone seems to suggest that the optimal policy can be determined just by looking at natives, and once non-natives are added to the mix, they just get subjected to the same policy. But if you’re insisting on one policy for everybody, it needs to take everybody into account. I don’t know if Carens would disagree, but he doesn’t really acknowledge the implications of this (so far) — the idea that changes may need to be made to regulation that move the First World in a potentially “Third World” direction to accommodate the changing composition of the labor force. This seems like the only reasonable alternative to having a two-tiered regulatory system. (As an interesting aside, opponents of expanded migration under the status quo, such as the otherwise pro-migrant Ron Unz, often support increased minimum wages as a way to deter migration).

  • Even if you believe that the optimal policy is independent of the population, the fact that the optimal policy for citizens is the same as the optimal policy for non-citizens doesn’t imply that the current policy for citizens (or for non-citizens for that matter) is close to that optimum. Therefore, moving the current policy for non-citizens in the direction of the current policy for citizens doesn’t make sense unless you already believe that that direction is the same as the direction of optimum. To take an example, suppose you believe that labor regulation X is bad (for everybody), but X applies to citizens currently. You have the opportunity to decide whether to support “not X” for non-citizens. Should you do that? (This also relates to the next point).

#5: Symbolic significance of reasonable measures undertaken in response to anti-immigration sentiment

Carens notes that there may be measures that are not wrong in substance but that have the symbolic significance of being anti-immigrant. He (tentatively) cites the UK’s tightening of birthright citizenship laws (to prevent tourists’ kids from getting such citizenship) as one example of such a measure. He doesn’t see the end result as morally wrong — he doesn’t think tourists’ kids prima facie deserve citizenship, but he believes that the move was in response to anti-immigrant sentiment.

To take another example (not provided by Carens), suppose you’re one of those who believes that “welfare creates a dependency trap that hurts its recipients more than it helps.” Would you vote for a ballot measure that sought to deny such welfare to some subclass of non-citizens? In your view, this denial would be in the non-citizens’ interest, but most likely the symbolic significance of it, and the perceived message, would be that the non-citizens are unwelcome.

#6: Against occupation-specific work visas

Carens offers an interesting argument against having occupation-specific work visas (i.e., work visas where the workers are restricted to a particular occupation). I don’t remember seeing the argument in that precise form before, though on this site we’ve obviously argued for a much more expansive vision of free movement than tying workers to a specific employer or occupation (see here for instance). I’ll take the liberty of paraphrasing Carens’ argument in a manner that will make both the argument and my subsequent critique of it clearer.

Consider these three types of prices of farm work:

  1. The price that farm work commands in the native labor market, without migration.
  2. The price that farm work would command if foreigners were free to migrate for work without being tied to an occupation.
  3. The price that farm work would command if foreigners could be hired to come on a visa restricted to farm work only.

Carens’ point is that (2) would be greater than (3), i.e., if workers had the option of competing on the entire labor market, they could probably command higher wages for farm work. Though Carens doesn’t explicitly say it, his language suggests that he thinks that (1) ~ (2), so that having occupation-restricted work visas distorts prices quite a bit, more than closed borders do. I think the point is theoretically interesting, and regardless of the empirics, is yet another reason to argue against occupation-restricted work visas (though they may still beat out closed borders). Going into the empirics would be too much of a distraction in the context of this post, but it would involve looking at the general issue of the impact that migration has on native wages. To a first approximation, wages are likely to fall in the sectors that experience heavier migration and rise in the other sectors. To the extent that workers are free to move between occupations, both as a matter of law and as a matter of skill level, this would ameliorate the sector-specific wage effects, so Carens’ point does seem to have prima facie merit. However, I still wouldn’t hinge the case for open borders on the general claim that (1) ~ (2), because it is quite possible that even with workers being legally free to move between occupations, wages for some sectors, such as farm work, do fall significantly.

This isn’t the end of my commentary on the book. I’ll be publishing part 2 of the commentary sometime in the next month.

The stability of excluding migrants from the franchise: part 1

One of the main concerns surrounding open borders, or radical immigration liberalization in general, is political externalities: migrants may vote in ways that destroy the prosperity-creating institutions of their destination countries. This would be bad not merely from a citizenist point of view, but could also entail killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, thus leading to an overall decline in global utility. To minimize this (potential) danger, a keyhole solution that has been advocated is to significantly increase the length and complexity of the path to citizenship.

My co-blogger John Lee has argued that open borders can be separated from open citizenship both in theory and practice. My co-blogger Nathan Smith, in his DRITI proposal for migration to the United States, has suggested that migrants have some fraction of their income be stored in a mandatory savings account, and once the amount in the account crosses a threshold, they can become citizens, if they are willing to forfeit the amount to the state. This creates a de facto waiting period as well as what amounts to a citizenship tariff.

Stability and other dimensions

In a previous blog post, I had written that any proposed keyhole solution needs to be evaluated along four dimensions:

  • Moral permissibility
  • Desirability
  • Feasibility
  • Stability

The purpose of this post is to consider the keyhole solution of an extended (or, in the limit, an infinite) waiting period for migrants to obtain citizenship (and hence access to the franchise) along the fourth of these dimensions, namely stability. In other words, I’m asking the question: suppose a political compromise were somehow worked out where a new visa class were created whereby it would be very easy to migrate — temporarily or permanently — but very difficult, or almost impossible, to obtain citizenship, and therefore, to vote. Would such a compromise be stable?

Before I begin discussing this, a few brief words about the first three dimensions. Each of these dimensions is very tricky:

  • Moral permissibility is something that many people would disagree on. Is a society where a large fraction of the resident population is disenfranchised morally permissible? I think it is, for similar reasons as those that John Lee offers in his blog post. But it’s a difficult and contentious issue, as Nathan has noted in the past. So I’ll duck the question entirely in this post. Obviously, one would need to seriously consider moral permissibility before actually advocating or lobbying for such a proposal, but the goal of this post is more limited: let’s first figure out if the solution can be stable! I do think that the keyhole solution is, at any rate, not so obviously morally impermissible as to make it pointless to even study it along the other dimensions.
  • Desirability would depend crucially on what we understand of the research on political externalities and the arguments that free migration might kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. My co-blogger Paul Crider recently argued that a lengthy path to citizenship was undesirable, contra co-blogger Nathan. To say something intelligent about this would require a lot of space. Suffice it to say that concerns about political externalities are sufficiently plausible that one can make at least a prima facie case that keyhole solutions should be investigated.
  • Feasibility would be something that depends heavily on the current political climate and the specific country where the proposal is being considered. It’s a topic worth exploring in its own right. I believe it makes sense to investigate stability before investigating feasibility, because one of the arguments for infeasibility is that people (whom one would need to get on board for feasibility) are concerned that the solution (of delaying or denying citizenship) isn’t stable.

Stability and the political tug-of-war

My ultimate goal will be to examine historical instances of disenfranchised segments of the resident population and when, if ever, these segments of the population got to vote. Prior to doing that, I’d like to explore a theoretical framework intended to address the question. The framework begins with the observation that decisions about enfranchisement and disenfranchisement are controlled by the elected governments, and the politicians here are concerned about getting re-elected. Although it is not the only motive, one major constraint affecting what politicians can afford to support is the effect it has on their electoral prospects.

A year ago, I had blegged for which of four possible positions on immigration and US politics readers found most plausible:

  1. Immigration good for Democrats, bad for Republicans regardless of either party’s position on immigration. In other words, even if the Republicans took a pro-immigration stance, more immigration would still hurt them. The electing a new people argument offered by Peter Brimelow of VDARE has this structure. Mark Krikorian of CIS also makes similar arguments. This argument naturally appeals to:
    • Those trying to sell restrictionism to the Republican Party.
    • Those trying to sell pro-immigration policies to the Democratic Party.
  2. Immigration good for Republicans, bad for Democrats regardless of either party’s position on immigration. I don’t know anybody who has taken this position, but I’m adding it for logical completeness. This argument naturally appeals to:
    • Those trying to sell pro-immigration policies to the Republican Party.
    • Those trying to sell restrictionism to the Democratic Party.
  3. Immigration good for whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance: In this view, both parties need to compete to be more pro-immigration, and whichever party manages to be more pro-immigration will benefit more from immigration. This seems to be the view of many open borders advocates and other pro-immigration forces, such as my co-blogger Nathan here and here. This argument naturally appeals to pro-immigration forces trying to simultaneously make inroads into both parties, setting up a “race to open borders” between both parties.
  4. Immigration bad for whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance: In this view, both parties gain from adopting a more restrictionist stance. Restrictionists who are trying to make a broad-based appeal to both parties would find this argument appealing. In this view, the vote of people with restrictionist sympathies matters a lot more than the votes of potential immigrants and their apologists. Thus, whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance will lose a lot more in terms of restrictionist votes, even if they gain a few immigrant votes. Such an argument, if believed, would lead to a “race to closed borders” between both parties. Some restrictionists have made these types of arguments, though they’ve largely focused on (1).

One can consider a similar story with respect to excluding migrants from the franchise. I’ll form the story more generally, since the purpose here is to consider historical examples around the world, not to study modern-day politics. Consider a country with a de facto two-party system where the parties are A and B. Consider the following possibilities for what might happen if migrants excluded from the franchise (under a keyhole solution compromise) were given the franchise:

  1. This would significantly improve the electoral prospects of party A, regardless of whether party A or party B plays they key role in granting them the franchise.
  2. This would significantly improve the electoral prospects of party B, regardless of whether party A or party B plays they key role in granting them the franchise.
  3. This would significantly improve the electoral prospects of whichever party were seen as taking the lead, or being more actively involved, in giving them the franchise.
  4. This would significantly improve the electoral prospects of whichever party were seen as less enthusiastic, or more opposed, to giving them the franchise. One possible story for this is nativist backlash against whichever party is seen to be championing migrants.

In the earlier discussion of Democrats and Republicans, (3) was the ideal position from the pro-immigration perspective, and (4) was the ideal position from the restrictionist perspective. In some sense, the story is flipped now: when trying to judge the stability of the keyhole solution, (3) is the worst possibility (both sides have incentives to compete for granting migrants the franchise), and (4) is the best (each side wants to avoid being seen as friendly to the idea of extending the franchise to migrants). (1) and (2) are intermediate: if it is known in advance that one specific party would benefit by granting the franchise, then the other party would oppose it. If decisions to grant the franchise require supermajorities in the legislatures, and political power is approximately evenly distributed in the legislature, the existing arrangement of denying the franchise would be relatively politically stable.

Although (3) is in some ways the worst for stability, it is plausible to imagine the keyhole solution being stable even if (3) were true, as long as one party had accumulated a huge lead over the other in terms of being seen as friendly to the idea of the migrant franchise. In this case, the other party would need to either expend a lot of effort overtaking its competitor in terms of how friendly it appears to the migrant franchise, or it could just block the legislation to grant migrants the franchise. The latter course of action might well prevail for a fair length of time, if for no other reason than status quo bias.

Stability and feasibility: it’s relative

One plausible argument is that if a keyhole solution were sufficiently feasible as to actually get implemented, it would also be stable. In this view, then, stability is not something to be worried about per se, and all our energies should be focused on the question of feasibility. However, this is not completely satisfactory particularly in the context of the franchise because of the incentives (for members who agree to the original compromise) to later defect and enfranchise the migrants, particularly if (3) is the most valid.

The relevant question (that we will consider for each example we explore) is what, historically, has been relatively easier: liberalizing migration, or enfranchising existing migrants?

Short versus long run: a brief note

The answer to the question of whether a particular electoral arrangement is stable depends to a considerable extent on the timeframe over which the arrangement is considered (as some of the historical examples below, that I’ll discuss in my next blog post, shall clarify). One can critique practically any arrangement by arguing that it will not be stable over the next 100 or 200 years. But such a critique, to be taken seriously, would need to be clarified in at least two ways.

  1. The critique should point out to specific features of the proposed arrangement that make it more unstable relative to other arrangements. It is not enough to point out that the arrangement will be unstable. Even the status quo isn’t particularly stable over a sufficiently long time frame. The world in 2013 looks different — very different — from the world in 1913.
  2. The critique should elaborate on whether the factors that make the arrangement unstable over the long run also affect our assessment of its desirability over the longer run. In other words: does the keyhole solution self-destroy because the problem to which it was a solution became irrelevant? To the extent that this is the case, the long-term instability of the keyhole solution is not a problem. Let’s say, for instance, that a concern is that if migrants are given a quick path to citizenship, then they will vote badly. Somebody proposes a keyhole solution of a lengthy path to citizenship. One might critique such a keyhole solution on the grounds that in a century, most people will be very loath to make any distinctions based on nationality of origin or length of stay in granting citizenship, due to a shift in global values surrounding human rights and the relationship between people and political institutions. This is plausible, but one would simultaneously need to consider whether this changed relationship also nullifies, or at any rate, weakens, the original political externalities concern. On the other hand, if the instability of the keyhole solution arises from factors that make the underlying problem worse (for instance, a world war or large-scale ethnic conflict) then indeed this is a problem.

As Nick Beckstead and Carl Shulman explained, the long run is very important, if we care about humanity without much bias for the present. And the long-run effects of open borders and/or keyhole solutions are very important. To the extent that we can speculate intelligently about these, or even better, make guesstimates, such speculation and guesstimates have considerable value. Nonetheless, we should be wary of the risk of making the future a Rorschach test for whatever we prefer to believe about the world, a point that Will Wilkinson eloquently made in a related context.

What historical examples are useful for understanding the question?

Any arrangement that has persisted for a reasonable length of time in the real world can safely be called stable, concerns of tipping points notwithstanding. There may well be other stable arrangements that have not yet existed in the real world, so this is just a starting point. The most direct evidence in this regard would be historical examples of large non-citizen populations that arose as a result of guest worker programs or illegal immigration, and the extent to which there were pressures to grant citizenship and the franchise to the large numbers of non-citizens that accumulated as a result of these programs.

In my next post, I will look at the following historical examples.

  • In the United States, slavery was ended after the Civil War of 1861-1865. However, blacks (including freed slaves) were de jure and de facto barred from political participation on a significant scale via Jim Crow-era voter literacy tests, until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 (there were admittedly a number of smaller civil rights acts in the years leading up to that). The arrangement appears to have been stable for a considerable length of time, and does not seem to have attracted any vocal political opposition until the end of World War II, although there were unsuccessful legal attempts to overturn other parts of Jim Crow-era legislation such as enforced segregation. In private conversation, Ilya Somin cited this as an example of how excluding people from the franchise can be stable for considerable lengths of time, and my co-blogger Chris Hendrix cited the same example in an EconLog comment. Is that a justified inference to draw? What other lessons can we draw from this historical fact? (Note that the purpose here is to assess stability, not to discuss the moral permissibility or desirability of the exclusion from the franchise).
  • In relative terms, have pushes for granting citizenship (and hence the franchise) to existing non-citizen residents (including both legal and illegal immigrants) been more powerful than pushes for expanding migration, or less? The answer is not clear-cut, and a reasonable case could be made either way. In the United States, for instance, a typical “comprehensive immigration reform” proposal typically focuses on (a) creating a path to citizenship for existing residents (the pro-immigration side), (b) more resources for enforcement and border security (the restrictionist side). This is what is considered a reasonable compromise. Even expanding high-skilled immigration gets low priority in comprehensive immigration reform bills, and guest worker programs are opposed by both the territorialist left and citizenist right (loosely speaking). On the other hand, “comprehensive immigration reform” proposals rarely make headway anyway (the only major amnesty in the US was in 1986, though Europe seems to have had amnesties on a more regular basis). Expansions of legal migration opportunities have happened in small steps, but more steadily. The evidence is decidedly mixed.
  • Germany has had a large Gastarbeiter (guest worker) program and it has been argued that, for a considerable period of time, there was no political pressure to grant citizenship to these guest workers (a large number of them from Turkey), despite their forming a large mass of possible voters. How true is this? This question is worthy of further investigation.
  • Other examples worth looking at might be: how did the Reform Act of 1867 (enfranchising the British working class and lower middle class), championed by Benjamin Disraeli, affect the electoral landscape in Britain? How did the 19th amendment to the United States constitution (granting women the right to vote), favored mainly by the Democratic Party, affect US electoral politics? How sensitive were the votes of Jews to the perceived anti-Semitism of European parties?