Tag Archives: status quo bias

How Did We Get Here? The Origins of Immigration Restrictions: Intro

As Vipul Naik has recently commented on, I am going to be starting a new series of posts here on  Open Borders. The goal of this series will be to examine how border restrictions have changed and what arguments were used to justify the new rules. Border restrictions of various sorts do have long histories, but why does a more open system tend to close up or a closed system become more open? How do the arguments made in the past compare to modern immigration arguments? Did those arguments hold up given the information available at the time? Do they hold up better or worse knowing what we know now? And in cases where dire predictions for or against immigration restrictions were made, how well did those predictions hold up?

This discussion can help move discussion away from a status quo bias. All else being equal, people tend to prefer the status quo to a change. This is very often a good thing. Indeed, the precautionary principle would indicate that the burden of proof should lie with new policies that they are not harmful. As an example, if you don’t know whether doing exploding a bomb will blow up the planet, but you think it might, then the safe action to take would be avoid blowing up that bomb. However, this principle holds less weight when the reason a status quo is in place to begin with is because of faulty reasoning and that status quo causes great harm itself. We have lots of examples on this site of how current policy creates lots of harm for the world be preventing what we could otherwise achieve or maintaining a status quo that isn’t working for hundreds of millions, but were there good reasons to put the restrictions in place to begin with? Did periods of greater immigration cause serious problems avoided by restriction? And have immigration systems been set up well given the concerns which motivated their creation? Here’s where historical examination and this series of posts in particular come in. I’ll be looking at the arguments used at the time and try to determine which made sense, which were over blown, and which were complete rubbish. Historically, all sides in immigration discussions have made mistakes, screwed up predictions, or even stated outright lies. Such is the nature of politics. But has one side or the other tended to be closer to the truth? If so, shouldn’t we be more suspicious of arguments from the opposite corner? If not, then at least we gain perspective that arguments for and against immigration have been equally bad and that the current status quo (whether one thinks too many or too few immigrants are allowed in) was established with shaky reasoning.

In any event, I hope to cover topics I already know some about such as the closing of the US border, Roman and early feudal restrictions, the end of passportless borders in Europe during World War 1, the partial re-opening of the US border starting in 1965, and the establishment of the open border Schnegen Area in Europe. If any of you readers have suggestions for other examples for me to look into please leave them in the comments and I’ll see what I can dig up! The first real post in this series will deal with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and when that goes up I’ll give a link in this post as well. Given that this kind of project takes quite a bit of time and that I am trying to keep sources mostly limited to data available online and in English (an unfortunate restriction but one that helps keep the conversation accessible to as many readers as possible), I’m always open to sources you all find! For the upcoming post the major sources I intend to use can all be found under the primary and secondary source sections of this page. So if there’s a decent source (whether primary or secondary…I figure my need for tertiary sources is probably met in most cases by Wikipedia), let me know in the comments.

Bleg: research on the effects of open borders beyond the labor market

The double world GDP literature cited in Clemens’ paper (and also John Kennan’s paper) provides estimates of how free global labor mobility would affect world GDP, mainly through their effects on the labor market (though other channels of effect are also considered in these papers, albeit perhaps not as much as they should be). But I don’t know of any literature about the effect that open borders might have on crime (something I speculated about here), global IQ (something I asked Bryan Caplan to bleg), and global politics (whether through political externalities in the receiving countries or a changed political landscape in the immigrant-sending countries). Speculation about the effects on the dating and mating markets and the genetic composition of future generations might also be quite valuable (see for instance Erik’s comment).

If a serious case is to be made for open borders, and if serious efforts are to be made to move towards open borders with appropriately designed keyhole solutions, it is essential to understand, envisage and prepare for a range of scenarios regarding these questions.

So, I’m blegging for the answers to two questions:

  1. If you’re aware of any literature that considers counterfactual scenarios of radically more open borders, whether locally (for specific country pairs) or globally, but that goes beyond simply measuring the effects on the labor market, please pass it on in the comments.
  2. Assuming that I am correct about the paucity of such research, though, why is there so little research on these topics, even compared to economics research on the effects of open borders? Two hypotheses have been suggested to me:
    • Nathan Smith’s view: Various frameworks in economics, such as rationality, allow for the consideration of radical counterfactual scenarios in a manner that is not necessarily realistic but still bears some semblance of objectivity and offers some type of ballpark. No similar widely-agreed-upon first-pass framework exists in other disciplines.
    • Bryan Caplan’s view: Economics manages to attract a few people who are genuinely curious and adventurous and willing to consider radical alternative scenarios and perform a serious analysis of these scenarios. Other disciplines may not attract such people.

    Any alternative hypotheses would also be welcome.

Do we need immigration?

This is the question asked by Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. In particular in an interview with NPR in 2011 he argues:

“Our take on it is really that a modern society has no need for any immigration,” he says. “We don’t actually need immigration. Our land is settled, we’re a post-industrial society, and so … from our perspective, we need to start from zero — like zero-based budgeting — and then say, ‘Are there groups of people whose admission is so compelling that we let them in despite the fact that there’s no need for this sort of thing?’ “

So do we need immigration? Krikorian goes into more detail on his reasoning in his book, The New Case Against Immigration:

A better approach would be to learn from the principle of zero-based budgeting, defined in one dictionary as “a process in government and corporate finance of justifying an overall budget or individual budget items each fiscal year or each review period rather than dealing only with proposed changes from a previous budget.”

So in considering the amount and nature of legal migration, we shouldn’t start from the existing level and work down; instead, we should start from zero immigration and work up. Zero is not where we’ll end, but it must be where we start. From zero we must then consider what categories of immigrant are so important to the national interest that their admission warrants risking the kinds of problems that the rest of this book has outlined.

To tackle this argument we need to consider whether the “needs” of the society are the primary issue at stake here, or even one of significance. This is not to say that society and concerns about it must be discarded, but they may not be particularly relevant even given pessimistic assumptions about the results of large-scale immigration. But first, why should “zero-based” budgeting be our analogy here? Continue reading “Do we need immigration?” »