Tag Archives: IQ deficit

How did we come to be so certain that closed borders are our salvation?

Editorial note, added December 26, 2014: Welcome, Hacker News readers! This website is devoted to discussing the case for open borders, including the moral arguments for it and the practical question of how to get there. To address concerns surrounding migration liberalization, we suggest keyhole soutions and slippery slopes to it. For more about the site, you might want to read our site FAQ. Another post that you might find particularly relevant is Nathan Smith’s post on Mark Zuckerberg and FWD.us.

One puzzling thing I notice about debating immigration is how certain people often are that strictly restricting immigration is the right policy. Almost any person, when prompted, can articulate almost immediately a tonne of reasons why restricting immigration makes sense:

  • National governments have carte blanche to exclude any foreigner from their territory as matter of moral right
  • Open borders would let terrorists into our country
  • Open borders would let foreigners steal jobs from our people
  • Open borders would allow a foreign people to invade and steal our country from us
  • Permitting immigration imposes foreign cultures on our people
  • Immigrants will abuse our welfare system
  • Immigrants will undermine our institutions and replace them with their inferior ones
  • Liberalising immigration won’t really help poor foreigners anyway
  • Too many immigrants will swamp our territory or society to the point that it cannot function any longer
  • Letting in low-IQ/-skilled immigrants harms our economy or polity

But for some reason, the same people eager to expound on the litany of catastrophic harms that would no doubt ensue under open borders are rarely able to cite any sort of academic literature that backs them up. Their best retort, in terms of academic prestige, is George Borjas’s work on immigration’s impact on American wages, and maybe Robert Putnam’s work suggesting that diversity reduces some theoretical measure of “social capital”. You can’t find any empirical estimates that seriously support the above hypotheses — at least not to the degree that has people so certain the only right immigration policy is building a better and higher prison wall.

Now, if you turn the above propositions around, on all of them, we are either certain that open borders is immensely beneficial, or we’re just unsure. We know for a fact that liberalising immigration immensely helps the poorest human beings alive. Hardly any serious restrictionist disputes this; the only ones I’ve encountered who do are basing their certainty on foundations of sand: the most memorable example was a person who suggested that estimates of the place premium are wrong, because when you adjust for purchasing power parity, people in poor countries have better living standards than people in the US — such an economically-illiterate claim that it doesn’t even merit a rebuttal here. Most restrictionists are happy to concede that immigrants are made better off — they just believe that the act of immigrating makes natives dramatically worse off.

But the propositions to do with crime and “job theft” are our runners up for certainty: in the empirical literature, it’s difficult to find any serious social scientist who believes immigration increases crime rates, especially in a significant manner. And among economists, Borjas alone sticks out like a sore thumb for producing estimates showing dramatic depression of native wages (“dramatic” being a short-run reduction of a few percentage points). If there are any serious peer-reviewed, published analyses showing immigration leads to a significant spike in crime, or any landmark studies besides Borjas’s contradicting the economic consensus, I’d love to see them, because they seem to have slipped the minds of the restrictionists I’ve met so far.

Still, for virtually all the other propositions above, the evidence is either limited, decidedly mixed, or both. The long-run institutional, political, and societal effects of immigration have not been thoroughly studied in an empirical manner. But assuming we place the most weight on these outcomes (and ignore the other findings on the economics and crime of immigration), this means we ought to be cautiously uncertain about what the right immigration policy is. It means that even if we favour restrictionist policies, we do so with great uncertainty.

Yet the spectre of open borders seems to produce a stout certainty on the part of many people, who even if they aren’t dedicated restrictionists, seem quite convinced that the status quo or something close to it is certainly the right and best policy, given what we know now. There is strong certainty that a more liberal immigration policy of any kind would be a horrible idea. Yet engaging with these pro-status quo or even pro-closed borders assertions, one finds them disappointingly devoid of empirical backing.

The best ace the restrictionists have in their back pocket is the nuanced argument that reducing the proportion of high-IQ people in an economy below a certain percentage, or raising the proportion of low-IQ people in an economy above a certain percentage, would lead to a slowdown in innovation or corrosion of successful institutions. But even this claim is problematic, since it is difficult to tell how far IQ and economic growth and innovation are causally linked. And if having low-IQ immigrants is so devastating, this effect should surely be easy to demonstrate through meaningful measures of harm: slower economic growth rates, fewer number of patents filed per capita, higher crime rate. If we can’t observe these harms at existing levels of immigration — and, it bears repeating, the overwhelming majority of the empirical literature cannot find any such meaningful harms — then right now we are simply worrying about IQ for the sake of worrying about IQ.

If this whole post seems wishy-washy, since I’m essentially conceding that we are uncertain about the effect of open borders on quite a few dimensions, you’re partly right. But it’s more accurate to say that we are just as equally quite uncertain about the impact of closed borders, and to the extent we know anything with certainty, it’s how devastating they are. We can’t even rule out that closed borders are incredibly harmful to us on a number of dimensions (a straightforward reading of the empirical literature suggests that if you want to cut crime rates, you should subsidise immigration). Worse still, given the consistency of the literature regarding the impact of closed borders on the world economy and global poverty, we are absolutely certain that closed borders keep millions of people in poverty of the worst kind. We know that on average, the effect of closed borders halves the world economy.

Even if you think that the status quo of closed borders is right, it is worrying how uncertain we are about this conclusion. In many cases, the issues at hand simply haven’t been studied enough, and we know virtually nothing (we certainly don’t know enough to support most common restrictionist assertions about immigration). We do know the incredible destruction that closed borders wreaks on the world economy and the people of the world, to the tune of halving world GDP and keeping millions in poverty. We ought to have our top men and women working on figuring out whether we can crack the borders open at all. The fact that we don’t means we are simply irrationally certain that closed borders is the right answer. And that irrationality strikes me as best summed up in this 1881 cartoon, depicting Irish immigrants to the US — men and women bringing terrorism, crime, and corrupt institutions to American shores, people whose only contribution was adding themselves to the welfare rolls:

Editorial note: If you’re interested in discussing the many issues related to open borders, check out the Open Borders Action Group on Facebbook.

Betting the Republic

UPDATE: After reading but before citing or linking to this post, please read the follow up where the author reveals his/her identity.

Open Borders note: This is a special and unusual guest post from an individual who contacted Open Borders with a request that the restrictionist case be presented clearly to the Open Borders audience. It is a one-off post and is not part of a general trend of similar posts. The opinions expressed here are often in contradiction with the opinions of Open Borders bloggers in general.

Open Borders note: The draft submitted by the post author had no links in it. Links have been added to relevant content across the web by the Open Borders staff (with no change to the post text). These have been added by the Open Borders staff to ease additional research, and not at the behest of the author.

Author’s note: Hello, and thank you for reading. Hopefully today I’ll be challenging your perceptions and your beliefs, and I look forward to hearing your replies. Since this is a guest post, I should give you some background. I am, to use your term, a “restrictionist.” I am anti-open-borders and I have written pieces related to immigration, specifically arguing against open borders, in the past. I have been in contact with this site’s administrator for some time. We’ve had numerous debates on the topic, and I’ve asked him if he would be willing to allow me to present my argument to his readership, in the interest of a fair and open debate. He has graciously accepted.

For a number of reasons, I am not using my real name on this post. Please don’t think that means I’m unwilling to stand by my arguments! Quite the contrary – in one week, I will reveal my identity in a follow-up post. However, I would like each of you to read and consider my words with a clear mind, instead of prejudging based on my previous works, which a number of you may be familiar with. I would like to hear your arguments in response to my words, not in response to my identity. I thank the good people at Open Borders for the opportunity, and I thank each of you in advance who read this. I look forward to reading your responses!

I am a libertarian, so I believe in freedom, personal responsibility, and mutual respect. I don’t believe that your freedom to own a gun means that you have the “freedom” to shoot someone, and I believe that in the perfect world, every interaction among people would be voluntary on all sides. Because allowing unfettered immigration expressly violates these principles, I am against it.

I’m not against immigration on the margin. I believe that we are a nation of immigrants and great because of it. But the presumption of open borders and unrestricted immigration poses a unique danger to the very aspects of America that protect that greatness. Even if I had no other personal concerns, the precautionary principle itself would put me squarely in the “skeptical” camp in regards to immigration. Since I do have other concerns, however (which I have debated with other libertarians before), I will present them here.

In any society, people – especially large groups of people – exert political influence. This isn’t a factor unique to democracies, though it may be amplified by that particular form of government. Even in a totalitarian dictatorship, enough people will invariably exert influence. I’m well aware that immigrants need not necessarily be granted citizenship and thus voting rights simply because they’ve been allowed to legally remain in residence. However, consider that the alternative is hardly better: when we see millions of people living in societies outside of America completely devoid of political representation we call it “oppression!” People have, throughout history, fought long and bloody struggles for the right to be represented in their government – do we really believe that immigrants here, even if they initially promise not to, will do any less? Even if every immigrant were to come with the express condition that they understand they will receive no representation in our government, their children will be bound by no such promise. And if they are bound by it, would they not rightly complain, and struggle for the very representation their parents were willing to forgo? Whether it’s this generation of immigrants, their children, or their children’s children, it’s not unreasonable to assume that a massive influx of people from a radically different culture would radically change our nation. And what would they eventually change it into? The very societies and cultures they’re so eager to escape – and that we should be equally eager to keep out, if we believe America to be an example of a better way to organize society.

So what are our options as natives? If we allow unfettered immigration, we have only three real options when it comes to establishing the political influence of the immigrants: we can grant them full representation, we can grant them no representation, or we can grant them some form of partial representation. None of these three options seem politically viable. Granting full voting rights to people that have not been raised and educated to understand the nuances of our culture seems akin to handing a driver’s license to someone that has never even seen a car before. Even more accurately, it would be like granting citizens of foreign countries the right to vote in our elections! In fact, even pro-immigration advocates recognize this, and my understanding is that for the most part, they advocate instead for the so-called “keyhole solution” of immigration without citizenship. But that’s no better. Even the eleven million illegal immigrants currently in America exhibit political influence. Would we assume that possibly many times that number of legal ones wouldn’t, voting or no? It would only be a matter of time before a coalition formed to demand voting rights, and in an exact repeat performance of the period between 1869-1964, those immigrants will get those rights, just as black people did. The American democracy will tolerate nothing less; in fact, I’d bet that it would happen much faster this time around.

For the same reason, granting some sort of partial representation seems unlikely to remain politically viable. Any such effort would be uncomfortably reminiscent of racially-charged historical facts like the Three-Fifths Compromise, and it’s unlikely that such levees would hold against the rising tide of a concerted effort to overcome them, especially when the numbers in such an organized bloc would swell by the day from immigration itself. Other halfway measures exist as well, but each has its own version of this political dilemma. Allowing something like “free immigration zones” within America sounds reasonable – allow unfettered immigration, but only into certain areas both to prevent harms to a broad selection of natives and to limit political power to a small number of districts – but words like “ghetto” will surely be bandied about politically until the barriers are overwhelmed. The American electorate howls constantly for equality (or at least the appearance of it), and I sincerely doubt they would tolerate any appearance of deliberate inequality, even if the alternative was actually worse for everyone involved.

As a libertarian, I accept that there should be a strong presumption of allowing freedom in all forms, and I concede that this moral presumption means that we should try to allow as many immigrants as is reasonable. But “reasonable” should mean “in a manner consistent with protecting the very liberties these immigrants are seeking, and that natives already enjoy.” My solution, such as it is, is as follows: I do not believe that we should be screening potential immigrants for skill level or wealth, “stapling green cards to diplomas,” as it were. Instead, I believe we should be screening them for values consistent with maintaining a free America, and basing our immigration numbers on that statistic. An unskilled farm worker who believes in maintaining freedom and liberty is much more valuable to the nation than a skilled surgeon who would seek to emulate the failed policies of his or her homeland. If the potential immigrants were capable of governing themselves into freedom and liberty, they would not be trying to come to America to begin with. If there were a perfect way to measure political attitudes, then that could easily be an entrance criterion, but since it’s so easy to lie about such matters (especially if it becomes common knowledge that your immigration status depends on it), it is likely that some other measurable quality may be necessary. IQ stands as the most reasonable quality: it’s relatively easy to measure, and while IQ by itself need not matter, it stands as a reasonable predictor of income, which in turn is a fairly reliable predictor of education, which is positively correlated with better voting habits. Combined with the simple fact that higher intelligence makes you more likely to be more open to sound economics and libertarian ideals, it’s entirely possible that systematically lower IQ among third-world natives prevents liberty from taking root in those nations. If that’s the case, there is little that cultural assimilation will do to change that. So it stands to reason that despite the other benefits they may offer to Americans, allowing them to influence the political landscape of America is a potentially ruinous proposition.

If there were a politically viable way to divorce immigrants themselves from the political influence they could wield, then I would be far more likely to accept the open borders stance. Ultimately, I believe that immigration helped to make this country great, and that immigration will be an essential part of this nation’s even greater future. But in order to preserve this nation for the generations upon generations of immigrants to come, we need to ensure a single generation of immigrants does not overwhelm and destroy it.

The American polity can endure and flourish with open borders

Very interesting discussion in a recent comments section. Let me start with a quote from an e-mail by Garett Jones to Vipul Naik:

I would emphasize a different conclusion: That the low-IQ immigrants will tend to worsen the institutions of the higher-IQ countries they move to. Low IQ immigrants will, to some degree, tend to make the country they move to more like the country they came from.

Partly this will be due to MRV and Caplan/Miller reasons: low IQ groups vote for bad policies.  Partly it’s because they will tend to elect individuals from their constituencies, which will, on average, tend to lower the average IQ of the legislature.  And partly it’s because the bureaucracy will tend to hire individuals from low-skill groups, which will lower government quality.

For these and other reasons, new low IQ citizens impose a tax on the nation’s institutions, and this institutional cost should be counted in a candid cost-benefit analysis.

*Shorter version: Good institutions are rare treasures, and institutions are endogenous with respect to (among other things) citizen IQ.  *

I would like to bracket the concerns in the second paragraph about voting, because I regard this as a solved problem, as far as the theory of open borders is concerned. Just because you let people in doesn’t mean you have to let them vote. There are already millions of Green Card holders in the US who can’t vote. The keyhole solution (Vipul’s term: I hadn’t thought of it at the time) which I advocate in Principles of a Free Society is open borders with (a) migrants preimbursing the government for their voluntary deportation if they become destitute (at least those under a new open-borders visa), (b) a surtax on (those) migrants, (c) mandatory savings, withdrawable only in the migrant’s home country, or forfeitable as part of (d) a path to “earned” citizenship once a migrant has saved a certain threshold amount in this mandatory savings account. Migrants would thus be given a substantial incentive to return home rather than to stay. Those who would choose to stay would presumably do so: (a) because their homelands were an especially bleak alternative; (b) because they foresaw high earnings in America so that forfeiting the savings account was worth it (these people would probably have relatively high IQs, on average); or (c) because they especially like, admire, and enjoy America (these people would presumably place a particularly high value on American institutions). To mix these migrants into the electorate is a very different, and doubtless much more favorable, prospect, than simply allowing anyone to come and vote. Of course, this is just one of many possibilities that would separate the right to come, live, and work from the right to vote. I made a similar point in the comments of the Garett Jones post, and added that “It’s even easier to maintain high hiring standards for the bureaucracy, which obviously doesn’t have to, and doesn’t, hire a representative cross-section of the resident population.” I also posed the question:

If I were to hypothesize that the maintenance of high-quality institutions depends mainly on the characteristics of an elite, and need not be much affected by adverse changes in the composition of the broad mass of the population, would the evidence that Garett has studied contradict me?

This was the jumping-off point for a very interesting debate between BK and John Lee. BK’s comments, in particular, are highly interesting and informative, yet I find myself unconvinced and dissenting at many points. BK answers my question:

Yes, if we are just referring to the overall demographics of a country. Note that across countries, smart people earn higher incomes as the proportion of smart people rises, not the absolute total.

Chinese-Singaporeans generate income almost twice as great in mostly Chinese Singapore as the large Chinese-Malaysian minority does in Malaysia (about $70,000 per annum vs about $38,000), even though there are less than 3 million Chinese in Singapore but almost 7 million in Malaysia. But the Chinese make up 75% of Singapore vs 25% of Malaysia…

There is a Chinese elite, but this isn’t enough to fix the institutions, which have to represent the general population. All this occurred in the context of strong legal discrimination in favor of Malay majority, racialized anti-business sentiment, and big gaps in political views between Chinese and non-Chinese Malaysians.

OK, but wait. There is a Chinese business elite in Malaysia, but the political elite is Malay. It is this Malay political elite that imposes “strong legal discrimination in favor of Malay majority, racialized anti-business sentiment,” etc. It is also important that (a) the Malays have deeper historic roots whereas the Chinese are relatively recent arrivals, and (b) the Malays are linguistically and religiously homogeneous (more or less, I think: BK and John Lee both know the region better than I do). If we’re looking for lessons from Singapore/Malaysia that cross-apply to a hypothetical open-borders United States, this argument would only be relevant if we’re supposing that voting immigrants would become the majority of the population, develop solidarity among themselves, and vote for “strong legal discrimination” and “racialized anti-business sentiment” against the offspring of today’s natives. With immigration tariffs and a gradual path to citizenship, you could more or less ensure that voting immigrants would never constitute a majority. Since immigrants would come from many different countries, it’s unlikely they’d develop solidarity among themselves except on wedge issues that related to them directly. Instead, they’d want to assimilate with American natives. Given that American society has a powerful absorptive capacity– if you’ve got fluent English and a college education and want to be a normal American, people will treat you like a normal American; and if you wereborn here, it’s taken for granted that you’re a normal American, never mind your background– any scenario resembling that in Malaysia is really quite implausible.

Also, I think the fact that immigrants would know they were immigrants makes a big difference. Malays in Malaysia think of the land as theirs. They’ve been there the longest. South Africa is in a similar situation, as far as I understand: black South Africans see themselves as the rightful owners of the soil, the whites as intruders. Russia, whose history I know better, stands in striking contrast to the 19th-century United States, because while they could both be described as multi-ethnic empires, in Russia the subordinate nationalities had never consented to be part of the Russian Empire, but for the most part had been simply conquered (it’s a little more complicated but never mind), whereas in the United States, the subordinate nationalities (if I may put it that way for the sake of the parallel) had in a real sense consented to rule from Washington by crossing oceans to immigrate. They were therefore much less inclined to question the legitimacy of the government and far more inclined to develop patriotic loyalty to the United States, superimposed on a lingering loyalty to their various mother countries. Continue reading The American polity can endure and flourish with open borders

“Only high IQ immigrants” fails to understand comparative advantage

OK, it’s time to give some strong back talk to this meme of “only high IQ immigration is good” which we’re getting in the comments. The simple rebuttal to “only high IQ immigration is good” is that this fails to understand comparative advantage and commits the maximize the average fallacy. But in a recent post, Vipul partially defends the high-IQ-only preference:

Not so fast, restrictionists would say. As Richard Hoste puts it, the comparative advantage argument works in the context of pure economics, but once we bring in crime and political externalities, it starts to falter. If crime rates go up, then your chance of being a crime victim goes up, all else equal (there are caveats to be added, but I’m using a simplistic picture of crime). Comparative advantage doesn’t come to the rescue here. And if low IQ means voting for bad policies (something that’s supported by Caplan’s research) then low IQ immigration would lead to negative political externalities.

So, I don’t think the comparative advantage argument is quite the right way to tackle the IQ deficit concern. So what is? I think we need to step back a bit and be clearer about how IQ matters to the moral and practical considerations that come up with respect to immigration and its effect on natives and immigrants. Does IQ matter in and of itself (as some indication of moral worth or desert), or does it matter because of its correlation with things like crime or political beliefs or social capital or what-have-you? It’s only the rare IQ elitist who argues that IQ is morally significant in and of itself. Most people who believe in the importance of IQ believe in it because it’s correlated with a lot of other things like crime, political beliefs, etc.

Vipul goes on to argue that people who make the “only high IQ immigrants” case are double-counting the harms of low-IQ immigration, and that IQ doesn’t give an extra reason for restrictionism, once one has taken possible effects on crime and politics into account. But I think Vipul is giving the “high IQ only” restrictionists too much credit. There may be subtle externalities arguments for why low-IQ immigration is worse, though I think they’re highly tenuous and have little empirical support (I’ll come back to that). But mostly, people are just failing to understand comparative advantage.

Consider the following comment from holier then [sic: should be “than”] thou:

I will say in this case I’m In total agreement with Silicon Valley. People in Silicon Valley are supporting high IQ immigrants, often with unique skill sets. They tend to add value to the nation in the short and long runs. Also, because programming is generally a value creation, rather then value transference industry, the addition of new labor can actually increase the wages of natives. A foreigner who starts a new company adds to the demand for labor. And programming is one of the few industries where smart people with little financial capital can still become job creating entrepreneurs.


For this reason I’m far more open to the case of supporting high levels of immigration of the high IQ, especially those that have skills in key industries. However, you’ll note that this is far different from being “open borders”. Open borders, in practical real life terms, means mostly supporting the mass immigration of low IQ low skill workers who will mostly compete for the existing pie rather then increase it.

This is just economic illiteracy. A foreigner who starts a new company doesn’t necessarily add to the demand for labor. He creates a few jobs directly, but if he competes successfully with existing domestic companies, he’ll destroy jobs elsewhere. If his new company is more productive than the incumbent firms he is grabbing market share from or perhaps driving out of business, he’s likely to destroy net jobs in that industry. Not that that’s a bad thing. To think it is is to be guilty of what Bryan Caplan, in The Myth of the Rational Voter, calls “make-work bias.” Productivity increases tend to hurt workers in particular industries while making consumers and investors better off. And the workers may not be harmed either in the long run, as the market recycles them into other industries. But there’s not much reason to think that foreign entrepreneurs are particularly likely to add net jobs to the economy.

Meanwhile, low-skilled immigrants can also create jobs. Suppose a lot of low-skilled immigrants come and are willing to work in restaurants for low wages. They don’t have the business skills to run restaurants, but they can wait tables and slice carrots and man the cash register. Meanwhile, a lot of hungry people in a hurry would be happy to pay $5 or $10 or $15 for a meal cooked by someone else, rather than having to do it themselves. Native-born foodies with a knack for business have an opportunity to raise some capital, set up a restaurant, hire the immigrants, while carving out a nice job for themselves running it. Of course, customers and investors benefit too. Again, I live in Fresno, and all around the city are orange orchards and vineyards. They need workers to pick the fruit. Native farmers, agronomists, irrigation engineers, etc., who have jobs in the agricultural sector depend on these workers to do the “low-skill” (it’s actually not that low-skill, I hear, but at any rate it doesn’t require much education) work that makes profits possible. Again, I work in a nice clean office building (except for the clutter on my own desk). Who keeps it clean? Not my fellow professors! We hire a janitorial service, which hires a lot of people for the low-skill work of emptying trash cans. Yes, I could take out the trash myself. But I have better things to do! Immigrants who take such tasks off my hands are “increasing the size of the pie.”

Or are these immigrants “competing for the existing pie” because other, less-skilled natives could have taken out the trash for me instead? No. That’s the wrong way of looking at it. Capitalism features competitive markets in almost every industry, but the people who are competing with each other are doing so by being productive, by creating value. To oppose “competition” to “increasing the size of the pie” is a mistake here. Some less-skilled natives probably do see their wages fall because of competition from immigrants (though even that’s controversial: less-educated natives may be able to exploit their comparative advantage in fluent English and being in the American cultural groove, and benefit from immigration just like higher-skilled natives). But if immigrant janitors do reduce the wages of native janitors, they’re still growing the pie. And the university benefits from cheaper housekeeping services.

Let me draw attention, by the way, to holier than thou‘s phrase “value transference industry.” This is not a term economists use. They don’t use it because it’s bogus. There is no phenomenon in the real world which it is sensible to refer to in this way. You could, if you liked, call theft a value transference industry, but that would be inappropriately neutral and non-judgmental. We don’t call theft “value transference,” let alone a “value transference industry,” we call it crime. Social Security might be called a value transference program, but it’s not an industry, precisely because it’s merely transferring, not creating value. It seems that holier than thou thinks the economic laws of capitalism ordain that some industries create value, others merely move it around. That’s just not how markets work. I advise holier than thou to delete this fallacious phrase from his vocabulary. Continue reading “Only high IQ immigrants” fails to understand comparative advantage

IQ and double counting the harms of immigration

Nathan just published a lengthy and detailed critique of various critics of open borders. I think he gets many things right, but in some ways he underestimates restrictionist arguments. This isn’t entirely Nathan’s fault — restrictionists often don’t frame their arguments cogently and clearly, and it’s extremely hard to understand their arguments without spending considerable time going through them. I want to talk about one particular restrictionist argument — the IQ deficit argument, and what I think an appropriate response to this argument is. This post is not intended to address specific restrictionist critiques of IQ. I’ll do that in subsequent posts. For now, my main goal is to explain my overall position.

Now, some open borders advocates find the entire discussion of IQ off-putting and are quick to make accusations of racism and invoke negative stereotypes for restrictionists. (To take just one example of where this came up, consider the comments section of this blog post where I came under fire for engaging IQ-based arguments in the context of immigration). I do not adopt this approach for multiple reasons, most important of which is that I think some of the basic premises underlying the IQ deficit concern are valid. And, my goal in this blog post is to address IQ-based objections, not to dismiss them.

I’ll state the IQ deficit argument for immigration to the United States, though the general framework is applicable to immigration to other countries as well.

  • IQ is meaningful, measurable, and correlated with a number of real-world performance metrics. Higher IQ people tend to be more cooperative, less criminal, more innovative, better and more informed voters, etc. These correlations hold even after we control for other things such as education levels. A high IQ person without much formal education would tend to be more cooperative than a low IQ person with a similarly low formal education: Basically, I think this is correct. It seems to agree with the Mainstream Science on Intelligence and Intelligence: Known and Unknowns. Recent work by Garett Jones has strengthened economists’ appreciation of the link IQ and cooperation and its role in economic development, something whose implications I considered in this blog post.
  • Adult IQ is fairly stable (though it can go down with head injuries and certain illnesses). It cannot usually be made to go up significantly. Childhood IQ may be malleable, but we don’t quite know how to manipulate it much on the positive side, though probably malnutrition and childhood disease affect it on the negative side. I think this is broadly correct too. This also agrees with the two consensus statements above.
  • Under open borders, the average IQ of immigrants to the United States is lower than the average IQ of current United States residents: International IQ data comparisons are not very solidly established, but the preliminary evidence suggests that this is likely to be true. If Lynn and Vanhanen’s data are to be believed, then the average world IQ is about 2/3 of a standard deviation below average US IQ. I’m not very confident about this, but it’s plausible.
  • The stability of adult IQ means that even after migration, the lower average IQ of immigrants will pull down the average IQ of the United States. This seems fairly plausible to me.

At this point, Nathan jumps in and says, “Ah! Even if correct, this is not as relevant as you think. You’re committing the maximize the average fallacy and refuse to understand the comparative advantage concept.”

Not so fast, restrictionists would say. As Richard Hoste puts it, the comparative advantage argument works in the context of pure economics, but once we bring in crime and political externalities, it starts to falter. If crime rates go up, then your chance of being a crime victim goes up, all else equal (there are caveats to be added, but I’m using a simplistic picture of crime). Comparative advantage doesn’t come to the rescue here. And if low IQ means voting for bad policies (something that’s supported by Caplan’s research) then low IQ immigration would lead to negative political externalities.

So, I don’t think the comparative advantage argument is quite the right way to tackle the IQ deficit concern. So what is? I think we need to step back a bit and be clearer about how IQ matters to the moral and practical considerations that come up with respect to immigration and its effect on natives and immigrants. Does IQ matter in and of itself (as some indication of moral worth or desert), or does it matter because of its correlation with things like crime or political beliefs or social capital or what-have-you? It’s only the rare IQ elitist who argues that IQ is morally significant in and of itself. Most people who believe in the importance of IQ believe in it because it’s correlated with a lot of other things like crime, political beliefs, etc.

This brings me to the crux of my objection to the IQ deficit concern. If lower immigrant IQ raises concerns about higher immigrant crime rates or wrong political beliefs, then that should show up in the evidence on immigrant crime rates and political beliefs. If it does show up there, then great, score a point for restrictionists, and now that we’ve done that, what additional information does immigrants’ IQ deficit give us? By saying that immigrants commit crime and that immigrants have a low IQ which means they would commit more crime, it seems like restrictionists are double counting crime.

What if restrictionists are unsuccessful in demonstrating higher immigrant crime? That does seem to be the case with current levels of immigration to the United States. As things stand today, the foreign-born have lower crime rates than natives both in total and for every ethnicity and for every combination of ethnicity and high school graduation status.

Some restrictionists look these data in the eye and say, “Immigrants have lower IQ, therefore they must be committing more crime, no matter what the data say.” I think the data on crime rates aren’t wrong, so let me engage restrictionists by offering alternative explanations within their explanatory framework of low IQ being correlated with higher crime rates. The first possibility is that the restrictionists may be wrong about their claim of lower IQ of current immigrants to the United States. The second possibility is that there may be certain other differences between the foreign-born and native-born Americans that compensate for the lower average IQ to push the overall averages in the other direction. Those differences may be in terms of the culture or in terms of the structural incentives and constraints faced by the foreign-born relative to natives. But whatever the story, I think that when restrictionists find that a particular predicted ill-effect of low immigrant IQ fails to materialize, then they should give up on that and concentrate on the other claimed bad effects. And, perhaps, also double-check their claim of lower immigrant IQ while they’re at it.

So my overall claim is that restrictionists who think the IQ framework is a good overarching framework within which to fit their objections can certainly offer this framework. But they should not double count harms by both including the harm itself and the IQ deficit channel for the harm as separate harms. And if a harm predicted by IQ deficit fails to materialize, they should sportingly concede the point and move on. Which means that IQ deficit ultimately serves only as a framework, not as an argument in and of itself.

I will now address a few possible objections that restrictionists might raise to what I’ve said above. Continue reading IQ and double counting the harms of immigration