Tag Archives: immigration tariffs

How rational can we expect nation-states to be in setting immigration policy?

A recent comment by Christopher Chang made a point that I feel we haven’t adequately addressed on this site: if open borders is such a great deal, why has nobody tried it? Using a similar structure of argument as Bryan Caplan employed in his blog post on motivating sheep or Gary Becker employed in the now-standard argument that market forces gradually erode discrimination, Chang writes:

It does not matter if 90% of actors are inefficiently biased, as long as some subset of the other 10% knows what they are doing; that subset, and its future imitators, win in the long run. This has happened over and over and over again in political, economic, and military history. Both you and Paul fail to comprehend the nature of “collective assessment” that requires only one yes vote. As I’ve mentioned numerous times, you can even provide much of the yes vote yourselves, and according to all your economic claims, this would be quite lucrative. (This does not mean that any particular individual’s failure to do so is damning; life circumstances frequently interfere. But the fact that none of you have done anything like this does, in fact, add up to a strong revealed preference against your claims. Your failure to even seriously openly discuss this among yourselves strongly implies that you do not actually want your rosy projections tested.)

I like the general reasoning behind the generation of these types of questions. Claims that the status quo is radically suboptimal should be met with skepticism, and should be taken seriously only if the people making the claims can offer a convincing explanation for why the suboptimal system is stable. In this post, I explore some possible explanations. Read and judge their strength for yourself!

Note that this post is not, in and of itself, a complete argument for open borders, or open borders with keyhole solutions, being optimal. It’s rather an explanation for how the current state of the world (far from open borders) is consistent with the possibility of open borders being a lot better. It seeks to address a potential inconsistency, rather than offer complete proof. Therefore, my rhetoric in the post will assume the open borders position and simply demonstrate that there are no obvious contradictions.

There’s a connection between this post and my earlier post on whether migration levels under open borders would be optimal, too high, or too low. But whereas that post is about the decisions of individuals holding state policies constant, this post is about the creation and tweaking of the policies themselves.

#1: The gains from pure open borders go to quite an extent to migrants and their descendants, and even though existing residents of migrant-receiving countries gain somewhat, the gains are a lot less

Why don’t we have pure open borders, if it benefits the world so much? The short answer is that the people with the power to decide this (the people in political power and the voters and special interests that they cater to) are not the people who benefit the most from open borders. As Nathan Smith notes here and here, immigration policy is quite “undemocratic” in the sense that potential immigrants have no (direct) electoral say in a matter that affects their freedom.

This point has a number of different aspects:

  • If the gains from migration went mostly to the immigrants and not to non-immigrants in the target country, the people who gain the most don’t have a say in the electoral process. Note that this point is valid even in the absence of disparity or asymmetry between nations. If immigration from Canada to the US significantly enriches the Canadians who migrate to the US, but has little effect on US natives, then US natives (who vote in the elections) have little incentive to push for freer migration from Canada.
  • One possible remedy to the above would be to push for free migration through reciprocity, for instance, freeing migration from Canada to the US in exchange for freeing migration from the US to Canada. This would work in the case that the fraction of the population in either country that has an interest in the option of migrating is large enough: if enough Americans want the freedom of easy migration to Canada, they may vote for a treaty that frees migration both ways. If, however, the fraction of people interested in migrating is small, then they may not be able to push for freer migration even if the absolute gains they experience are huge. That’s because democracy is based on counting votes, rather than on winners compensating losers.
  • In the current world, there are significant international disparities in wealth and wages, and a strong directionality to potential migrant flows. In light of this, the spotlight falls on the migration policy of countries that have greater per capita income or wages or are otherwise attractive migrant destinations. The degree of solidarity between potential migrants and the set of people who have the most influence over the most relevant migration policy is now quite low: the former are people from low-income countries, and the latter are people of prosperous countries. Even though the latter set is expected to gain somewhat in expectation, the gains are smaller in absolute terms, and even smaller when viewed as a proportion of how well off they currently are.

Note that many of these can be fixed, at least in principle, if we relax from pure open borders to open borders with appropriate keyhole solutions such as pro-native tax-and-transfer schemes. So why don’t we have instances of the latter? Actually, we do, to some extent. We’ll get to this later in the post.

#2: The full gains from open borders take time to materialize

Estimates of significant increases in world production after open borders are not estimates of overnight gains. Rather, these are estimates of how the world would look a decade or two from the opening of borders, relative to how it might look in the counterfactual. Even if the estimates were correct, the full magnitude of the gains would be felt after a fairly long time-lapse. Thus, there may not be good electoral incentives for democratic governments to support freer migration for the economic benefits. Some of the economic benefits would be reaped immediately, but it would be an order of magnitude less than the long-term gains. Note that this is similar to the reason why we expect individual migration to be less than what seems economically optimal, as discussed in my other post.

#3: In so far as there is a citizenist case for open borders, it relies on a tax-and-transfer scheme combined with somewhat draconian enforcement

Nathan Smith has previously argued that there is a citizenist case for open borders: use a tax-and-transfer scheme such as immigration tariffs or DRITI to hold natives harmless and distribute the gains away from migrants and towards natives.

Schemes like DRITI present a dark side: they exacerbate the visibility of poverty and, even as they reduce the unfairness of the system as a whole, make it more visible. So, in addition to open borders advocates who’d worry about such schemes (see, for instance, here and here), there are many others, such as immigrant rights activists, who would reject these schemes. Even if open borders started out with such “keyhole solutions” it’s not clear that they’d be stable.

The combination of citizenism and the form of local inequality aversion make tax-and-transfer-based keyhole solutions a hard sell in many countries. I don’t think the problems are insurmountable. But I don’t think it’s surprising that we haven’t seen a lot of progress on these so far. It’s fruit, but it’s not very low-hanging fruit.

Incidentally, one prediction of this setup is that countries that are less democratic, and where governments have more authority to carry out more draconian enforcement, might be more likely to have implemented citizenistic migration liberalization. This is indeed the case, as we’ll see in #5.

#4: The incentives of democracy

The incentives of the politicians and bureaucrats running the government are not perfectly aligned with the long-term interests of the citizens. There are two broad problems:

  1. Citizens themselves don’t know what’s best for them, so they may not reward their representatives in government for choosing better policies or delivering better outcomes.
  2. Politicians often cater to special interests rather than the needs of citizens.

In the context of why there hasn’t been more significant migration liberalization, I expect (1) to be a far bigger reason than (2). The general phenomenon of political ignorance in the electorate in advanced democracies has been well-studied (the political knowledge elsewhere is highly unlikely to be better, and quite likely to be worse). Explanations such as rational ignorance and rational irrationality have been offered. Given generally low levels of political knowledge and decision-making skill on the part of the electorate, we shouldn’t have strong reason to expect a democracy to converge to a good outcome. But we might still expect that, by random chance, some democracies would converge to good outcomes in a given area. So a bit more is needed.

Bryan Caplan has posited that one particular aspect to voter irrationality is anti-foreign bias: people systematically underestimate the benefits of interactions with foreigners. Are people inherently anti-foreign? I think that people have inherent tendencies to support their ingroup and resent or discount the welfare of outgroups. But the particular use of nationality as the criterion to define ingroup and outgroup is probably an artifact of the political process: there is an existing governance infrastructure that facilitates discrimination on the basis of nationality, and an existing ideological infrastructure that gives particular importance to national identity. So people’s diverse ingroup-outgroup choices get projected to divisions based on nationality and citizenship even if that’s not the best way of describing the distinctions in their own minds. The upshot is that we might expect the political process to produce an anti-migration bias relative to what’s optimal, and while this reflects some discomfort that individuals experience interacting with foreigners, it’s often a result of a political process translating other forms of discomfort people have to the language of discrimination based on nationality (this is a somewhat tricky point, and I hope to elaborate in a future post).

#5: Some countries that are undemocratic or less democratic, and have more deference for elites, tend to have citizenistic and numerically liberal migration policies

Carl Shulman has been doing yeoman’s work of late examining some interesting “open borders with keyhole solutions”-type regimes. He looked at Singapore in a blog post titled Migration levies and unskilled labor mobility in Singapore, where he discussed Singapore’s large temporary guest worker program for low-skilled migrants, that combines fairly huge numbers of migration with fairly stringent restrictions on what migrants can do, as well as taxes on the migrants that make them fiscally good for the government. In a blog post titled What does migration to the United Arab Emirates tell us about labor mobility?, he looked at the UAE, where a significant majority of the population is foreign-born, and where there are significant differences between the rights and privileges accorded to a native elite and a large foreign-born workforce. In both cases, their policies created a win-win for natives, the government officials, and migrants. In Singapore, the success of these policies arises from an effective one-party system and considerable deference to elites in policymaking, despite the general population being less pro-migration than in many First World countries with far stricter limits on migration. The UAE is a federation of hereditary monarchies, which insulates it from the pressures of competitive democracy. The population is also less likely to push for liberal ideals of equality that jeopardize the stability of keyhole solutions.

Relatedly, a recent book called The Price of Rights by Martin Ruhs (to be reviewed later) empirically came to the conclusion that there’s a trade-off between the number of migrants a country admits and the package of rights that are accorded to people after they migrate. A similar point had been made in a post by Michael Carey a while back on immigration and class struggle. If modern liberal democracies tend to be strong on the package of rights and privileges, this (often) comes at the expense of the number of migrants they admit.

#6: If many countries tried citizenistic open borders, competition would drive down tariffs eventually, bringing the world closer to open borders

In #1, we (sort of) ruled out the plausibility of pure open borders (barring dramatic changes in people’s views of moral permissibility and side-constraints). But in #5, we pointed out that we do have partial approximations to “open borders with keyhole solutions” and these could be taken further. So how far are “open borders with keyhole solutions” from pure open borders?

We can think of pure open borders as migration with zero government-imposed barriers or taxes. Suppose most countries have prohibitively high barriers, and a few countries experiment with selectively reducing taxes to the level of “open borders with keyhole solutions.” These few countries can still afford to keep the taxes at their profit-maximizing level, because they’re effective monopolists: all the other countries are out of the running because their barriers are too high. The policies of these few countries are a Pareto improvement over the status quo, but they still carry the inefficiencies of a monopoly. If, however, more countries start getting drawn into the game of open borders with keyhole solutions, then there is more competition between countries that exerts a downward pressure on the taxes and barriers. Thus, as more countries do it, we get closer to open borders. We probably don’t get anywhere near pure open borders, but we do get a lot closer than if only one or two countries were trying it out.

PS: Open borders isn’t the only policy proposal for which we can ask this sort of question. I’m quite curious to hear the thoughts of proponents of drug legalization, free trade, organ trading, and other such cutting-edge proposals. The situation with some of these seems to be a bit better than for open borders, but not by a huge margin. For instance, consider the case of drug legalization. According to this Wikipedia page, there is only one country, Uruguay, where the possession, sale, transport, and cultivation of cannabis (marijuana) are all legal. But there are a number of nation-states (plus member states in nations) where the possession of marijuana is legal, or illegal but decriminalized, and there are others where marijuana use is de facto tolerated. So even though full-blown legalization is rarely embraced, we have enough variation in the direction of legalization to address the question of “if it’s such low-hanging fruit, why has nobody plucked it?” This is roughly similar to the situation with open borders.

PS2: I wrote up a condensed version of an early draft of this post in the form of an Open Borders Action Group post.

Auctions, tariffs, and taxes

A draft that Alex Nowrasteh sent me to read provoked me to think in a new way about various market alternatives for regulating immigration. All of the following policies use the price mechanism, in one way or another, to ration visas by willingness-to-pay, while capturing some of the surpluses generated by immigration to return them to natives.

1. Auctions. Under this mechanism, a certain number of visas would be sold to the highest bidder. There’s a lot to be said about auction design, but for concreteness, you could just let everyone submit a bid, and then accept the top x bids, requiring them each to pay, not what they bid (which would make them bid strategically) but the lowest acceptable bid (which would make them reveal their true values). Auction winners would pay their bid, and be issued visas.

2. Tariffs. Under this mechanism, the government would set a price for a visa, and whoever was willing to pay it would receive one. There might, of course, be restrictions: knowledge of English, perhaps, or criminal background check, or some regions of the world (Pakistan?) might be excluded or treated differently on national security grounds.

3. Taxes. This is the approach I’ve long advocated: the DRITI scheme would be one way to design it. In this case, to come would be nearly free– in the DRITI scheme, I have people preimburse the government for a deportation option which they could then exercise if they were destitute and wanted to go home– but those who came to work would pay a surtax (DRITI has some other features but never mind those for now).

Now, at a highly theoretical level, the effects of all these policies could be much the same. It is not the case that, say, auctions are necessarily more restrictive than tariffs, and tariffs than taxes. If you auctioned off enough visas, that could be quite a loose immigration policy. If you set a tariff, or a migrant surtax, very high, the policy could be rather restrictive. If the government knows its own preferences and the demand curve for immigration, it doesn’t matter whether it controls the quantity (via auctions) or the price (via tariffs/taxes): the number who will come, and what they will pay, will maximize the government’s objective function. Similarly, if immigrants know what they’ll earn and are not credit-constrained, it doesn’t matter whether they pay everything up front (via auctions/tariffs) or over time (via taxes): either way, those will come whose net present value of migrating is greater than the net present value of the payments required.

There are a lot of practical differences between the three policies but I think the crucial one is how the burden of uncertainty is distributed, if, as is realistic, the government does not know exactly what the demand for immigration is like, nor do immigrants know exactly what they’ll earn in the US.

Under the auction mechanism, the government faces no uncertainty about what may the most important variable, namely, how many immigrants will come, though it faces uncertainty about how much it will raise from the auction. Immigrants, on the other hand, face a lot of uncertainty, because they don’t know if their bids will prove sufficiently high to qualify for visas. Immigrants might find it difficult to plan, not knowing whether they would be able to come or not. Also, they wouldn’t know how much they would end up paying. If an immigrant bids $500,000, he might be fairly confident of coming, but not know whether he’d end up paying $20,000 or $100,000.

Under the tariff mechanism, the government faces uncertainty about how many immigrants will come, and also about how much revenue it will receive in total, but not about what price each immigrant will pay. It knows how much revenue it will get per immigrant. Meanwhile, immigrants know what they’ll have to pay for a visa, and face no uncertainty on that front. But they face a lot of uncertainty about what they’ll earn in the US, and how much they’ll like it there. The value of immigrating is probably quite uncertain, but they have to pay the same price in any case. If they pay a lot, then are unlucky in the labor market, or have overestimated their value, or become unbearably homesick, they’re in trouble. Of course, they might also get large, unexpected surpluses if their fortunes in the US are better than they had anticipated. But it’s a risky undertaking.

Under the tax mechanism, the government faces uncertainty, both about how many immigrants will come, and about how much the immigrants will earn and therefore how much they’ll pay in taxes. The government, moreover, has to wait to get paid. Immigrants, on the other hand, face much less risk. They don’t know how well they’ll succeed in the US, but if they do badly, they can go home, or if they stay even though they’re earning little, they’ll pay little (though even a small amount might be painful) for the privilege of staying. If they do well, they’ll pay a lot, but they can afford it then. If they earn well enough but dislike life in the US, they’re not bound to stay just so they can pay off the debt they incurred for the visa: the visa was near-free. Immigrants also don’t need to have a lot of liquid assets to come.

I much prefer the tax mechanism, because the government can handle the risk easily. The government is highly “diversified” in that many immigrants will come, and more taxes from the successful will offset fewer taxes from the less successful. And the government can easily afford to wait and garnish wages rather than getting a lump sum up front. I think only the tax mechanism would (virtually) eliminate undocumented immigration, because anyone who could afford to pay a coyote could afford to get a visa. I also think the government could raise the most money through immigration taxes, because immigrants who were relieved of risk and the need to go into debt would be willing to accept arrangements that, on average, would ultimately cost them a good deal more than what they would have agreed to pay as a lump sum ex ante.

But it occurs to me (or perhaps Vipul suggested it, I can’t remember) that a policy path to open borders might involve (a) auctions first, (b) then tariffs, and (c) taxes last.

If the public appreciated the efficiency advantages of regulating immigration by working through markets, but was still spooked by the possibility of getting swamped, they might go for the auction approach. That way they’d still control how many immigrants came in.

If the auction mechanism had been in place for a while, people might start to feel they knew something about the shape of the immigration demand curve, which would make them more comfortable with the idea of tariffs, since the number of immigrants who would use them, though unknown, would be less unknown. People could make an educated guess. Moreover, the auction mechanism would have some problems which a tariff could resolve. For example, what’s the auction schedule? If it were annual, people would have to wait a long time for it, and to lose a bid could mean the disruption of a lot of big plans. If it were monthly, people would speculate on a favorable month. Prices might fluctuate in strange ways. Some might be willing to pay a lot more than the usual auction prices during the off-season, while others would overbid and regret it. A tariff would promise to be less arbitrary and raise more revenue.

Later, when the tariff mechanism had been in place for a while, people would have a clearer idea what the income profile of immigrants tended to be, which would help them project the earnings of a migration tax. There would be lots of stories about spirited, entrepreneurial aspirants to immigration who, however, couldn’t raise the money to come, though they seemed sure to succeed in the US if they could just get over that hurdle. Others would pay the tariff, get homesick, but be stuck, needing high earnings to pay off creditors. A switch to taxes would promise to relieve immigrants of risk and avoid excluding promising people merely because they had poor access to credit, while at the same time, increasing the revenue the government could take in.

Selling Work Visas: Auctions or a Tariff?

The post was originally published at the Cato@Liberty blog here and is reproduced with permission from the author.

Yesterday Professor Giovanni Peri presented an immigration reform plan that would auction work visas to employers. As I wrote yesterday, Peri’s plan would diminish the misallocation of current visas but not do much to increase the quantity of work visas. Since the real problem with America’s immigration system is a lack of work visas and green cards, Peri’s plan seeks to solve a rather miniscule problem by comparison.

Proponents of selling visas either support auctioning a limited number of visas to the highest bidders or establishing a tariff that sets prices but allows the quantity to adjust. An immigration tariff is far superior to an auction of numerically limited work visas. You can read my proposal in more detail here or listen to me explain it here. ADDED BY OPEN BORDERS: For a background on immigration tariffs, see here.

Here are three reasons why an immigration tariff is better than an auction: Continue reading “Selling Work Visas: Auctions or a Tariff?” »

Selling work visas

The post was originally published at the Cato@Liberty blog here and is reproduced with permission from the author.

Professor Giovanni Peri today made an interesting proposal to auction work visas to the highest bidding employer. His reform is similar to an auction proposal made by Gary Becker, but more specific. His idea is innovative and deals with transitioning from the current maze of quotas, visa categories, and other barriers to a more open system that better allocates visas to the highest bidders.

The one problem with Peri’s proposal is that it does not meaningfully increase the number of work visas. The limited number of work visas, not the distribution, is the main problem with America’s immigration system. Instead, he calls for reallocating visas from families to the employment based category. He then wants American employers to bid for the limited quantity of work visas issued quarterly. A government commission would adjust the quantity and immigrants would be free to move between employers who purchase visas.

Economists like Becker and Peri are rightly concerned with how societies allocate scarce resources to different uses, but the scarcity of work visas is an artificial one created by the government, not one that results from a scarcity of the factors of production or other inputs. This is why there should be no numerical limits on the quantity of work visas issued even if they are priced. Charging for work visas is a substantial improvement over the current system, as I say here, here, here, and here. Most of the welfare gains come from allowing the quantity of visas to adjust to the price, not the other way around. An efficient visa selling process will operate more like a tariff than an auction. ADDED BY OPEN BORDERS: For a background on immigration tariffs, see here.

For normal goods and services, a rising price incentivizes consumers to limit their consumption and producers to increase production. A government commission tasked with adjusting visa quantities would face political rather than market incentives and not increase visas in response to rising prices. Unless the incentives are carefully aligned, the result would probably be a more arbitrary and numerically limited immigration system.

Another problem with Peri’s proposal is that it only allows employers to bid for work visas. Continue reading “Selling work visas” »