Tag Archives: Open Borders comments

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