The inaugural issue of Peregrine, and the citizenistic case for migration liberalization

The Hoover Institution recently started a new online journal called Peregrine on immigration to the United States (website, Wikipedia). The journal is part of the Hoover Institution’s Conte Initiative on Immigration Reform. Judging by its inaugural issue, the journal seems to lean in a pro-freer-migration direction, but with a citizenistic focus. In particular, there’s an emphasis both on keyhole solutions and on a preference for high skill, ideas that are perhaps more common among technocrats, policy wonk types, and part-of-the-way-free-market intellectuals (compared to hardcore libertarians, civil rights-oriented people, and people with a more progressive/egalitarian bent).

I’m going to look at some of the pieces in their inaugural issue to better illuminate the distinctions between the open borders position and moderate immigration reform ideas.

The survey

The inaugural issue includes a survey of 38 members of the Hoover Working Group on what type of change to United States immigration policy they would prefer. The following are the results (more on the linked page):

  • 89% favored a switch to a more merit-based immigration system ceteris paribus (i.e., for any given number of admitted immigrants, they favored a more merit-based allocation than the current system).
  • 86% favored additional merit immigrants.
  • 72% favored unlimited green cards for scientists.
  • 65% favored an “equilibrium bond”.
  • 63% favored limiting the number of family-based green cards issued, holding the total number of immigrants admitted constant.
  • 58% favored an equilibrium market.
  • 57% favored a long-term green card, allowing for unlimited green cards but a longer path to citizenship.
  • 38% favored restrictions on green cards that vary cyclically with economic conditions in the US.
  • 36% favored open borders subject to “a background check and some kind of assimilation test such as English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history.”

It’s worth noting that this is probably not a scientific sample, and the selection bias makes it unrepresentative even of the technocratic or policy wonk world. It’s still interesting that over a third of the respondents favored (essentially) open borders, and many other favored fairly expansive keyhole solutions, particularly for high-skilled workers. For the US population as a whole, the comparable number according to the World Values Survey was 7%. In fact, according to the WVS, the highest proportion for “let anybody come” across all First World countries was 18%, found in Sweden. The disparity between the views of the experts surveyed by Hoover and the general public is consistent with the general economist consensus in favor of freer migration and the fact that smart and more informed opinion tends to be more supportive of migration liberalization.

The survey was also discussed in an Open Borders Action Group post.

John Cochrane’s article

University of Chicago financial economist John H. Cochrane (blog, Wikipedia) penned a piece for the inaugural issue answering the question What is the Optimal Number of Immigrants to the US? He republished the piece on his own blog, and it was picked up across the blogosphere (for instance, here, here, and here).

Prima facie, Cochrane’s argument and conclusion seem quite closely aligned with the typical arguments of open borders advocates. Cochrane notes that the United States is nowhere close to being saturated. He points out that asking for the optimal number of immigrants is the wrong question.

But Cochrane’s framing quickly shifts to the citizenist case for open borders. Cochrane (emphasis mine):

What is the optimal number of imported tomatoes? Soviet central planners tried to figure things out this way. Americans shouldn’t. We should decide on the optimal terms on which tomatoes can be imported, and then let the market decide the number. Similarly, we should debate what the optimal terms for immigration are – How will we let people immigrate? What kind of people? – so that the vast majority of such immigrants are a net benefit to the US. Then, let as many come as want to. On the right terms, the number will self-regulate.

In the rest of Cochrane’s essay, where he considers different sorts of keyhole solutions, he toggles between pointing out what he (and many open borders advocates on this site) view as a problem with the use of state power for citizenistic goals and continuing to make the citizenistic case for open borders with keyhole solutions. For instance, he begins by critiquing the moral view that underpins nationally based welfare states, but is quick to stop and switch to offering keyhole solutions:

Why fear immigrants? You might fear they will overuse social services. Morally, just why your taxes should support an unfortunate who happened to be born in Maine and not one who happened to be born in Guadalajara is an interesting question, but leave that aside for now. It’s easy enough to structure a deal that protects the finances of the welfare state. Immigrants would pay a bond at the border, say $5,000. If they run out of money, are convicted of a crime, don’t have health insurance, or whatever, the bond pays for their ticket home. Alternatively, the government could establish an asset and income test: immigrants must show $10,000 in assets and either a job within 6 months or visible business or asset income.

When it comes to concerns about suppressing the wages of natives, he starts off with reviewing the empirical social science, then switches to the moral argument, and finally offers potential keyhole solutions:

You might fear that immigrants compete for jobs, and drive down American wages. Again, this is not demonstrably a serious problem. If labor does not move in, capital – factories and farms — moves out and wages go down anyway. Immigrants come to work in wide-open industries with lots of jobs, not those where there are few jobs and many workers. Thus, restrictions on immigration do little, in the long run of an open economy such as the US, to “protect” wages. To the extent wage-boosting immigration restrictions can work, the higher wages translate into higher prices to American consumers. The country as a whole – especially low-income consumers who tend to shop at Wal-Mart and benefit the most from low-priced goods – is not better off.

And finally, if it did work, restricting labor benefits some American workers by hurting Mexican workers. Is it really America’s place in the world to take opportunities from poor Mexicans to subsidize our workers’ standard of living? We are a strange country that rigorously prohibits employment discrimination “because of birthplace, ancestry, culture, linguistic characteristics common to a specific ethnic group, or accent….” and then requires such discrimination because of, well, birthplace.

But if that’s a worry, fine. The government could license protected occupations such that only US citizens can hold the protected occupational licenses. Too intrusive? Well, that’s what we’re trying to do by keeping people out, and good policy is not produced by putting nice appearances on nasty policies.

Overall, Cochrane comes off as somebody who has all the trappings of an open borders advocate, but whose frame of approaching the issue is still dominated by mainstream terms of discourse. In particular, he seems to grant a lot to citizenism as a framework to argue within, and rarely makes moral, rights-based arguments for the right to migrate. This would probably make him more appealing to the technocrats and policy wonks reading him, and would probably also earn him praise from some of the critics of this site such as occasional commenter Christopher Chang.

Sidenote: Cochrane sounds remarkably similar to Bryan Caplan back in 2007. Caplan seems to since have evolved in his presentation style to focus more on rights-based arguments and a more universal, big-picture perspective (as evidenced here and here). It’s possible that Cochrane will evolve in a similar direction if he spends more time reflecting on migration over the coming years. Indeed, as my co-blogger John Lee noted, Cochrane’s addendum when he republished the piece on his own blog suggested that he was already shifting in the direction of making the moral case more forcefully. I also posted about the parallels between Cochrane’s piece and Caplan’s early writing to the Open Borders Action Group, but it hadn’t gotten any comments there at the time of publishing this piece.

Richard Epstein’s article

Though not as radical as Cochrane, University of Chicago and New York University law scholar Richard Epstein (Wikipedia) also pushed back at the idea that numerical limits on immigration were the right way to go. Reflecting his classical liberal and legal background, Epstein suggested instead trying to come up with a clear criterion defining what sort of potential immigrant might be let in. His own view was that the criterion should be tailored so that the marginal immigrant did not pose a significant burden on the country. On the whole, he was optimistic about the possibility of coming up with criteria that eliminate the need for long queues without hurting the interests of the United States:

Immigration rules should not envision in advance some quota on the number of persons who will be allowed in on permanent visas. They should avoid patterning principles. Rather, the rules should set out the test by which individuals should be allowed into the country.

Here is one example. Suppose that it is thought that individuals should be allowed into the United States if they can prove that they can support themselves in the country for a period of say three years. The appropriate rules in question then could ask that individuals seeking immigration gain a certificate of prospective employment from a domestic party. It may well be that the initial permit will be subject to modification if the immigrant loses the job, changes the job, changes marital status or whatever. But for these purposes, the key step is the first one. Once the basic test is established, then let the number of immigrants take care of itself: an equilibrium in which those who can meet the test get in, those who do not, do not get it.

One caveat to this proposal is that this three-year period need not be set into stone. A second caveat to this proposal is that it might not work at all. Neither caveat gets us back to a system of quotas and targets. It could be that the leading indicator for immigration practice should be something other than a promise of employment. But whatever the test, this country is large, and so long as the proposed standards are not perverse, we should let the numbers take care of themselves.

The rest

The remaining articles in the inaugural issue were less radical, and perhaps a better reflection of the conservative/classical-liberal/technocratic/policy-wonk approach (as opposed to both the egalitarian/progressive and hardcore libertarian approaches). Here’s a brief summary:

  • Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute recommends increasing work-based migration and limiting family migration to only the nuclear family.
  • Lanhee Chan recommends a more rational approach that reduced the long queue for green cards, but did not provide clear specifics of just how far to push in the direction of liberalization.
  • Beth Ann Bovick recommends a shift to work-based and skills-based migration so that migration could help with the recovery and growth of the United States economy.


Overall, the survey findings as well as individual essays provide additional confirmation of the economist consensus in favor of freer migration (see also here), while also confirming that even economically informed and aware people are not open borders advocates. They see the arguments for freer migration, but don’t think of open borders as feasible. And they concede citizenistic goals, so the main reason they are more pro-migration is largely that their economic literacy causes them to be more optimistic about the benefits of migration to citizens.

5 thoughts on “The inaugural issue of Peregrine, and the citizenistic case for migration liberalization”

  1. You might fear that immigrants compete for jobs, and drive down American wages. Again, this is not demonstrably a serious problem. If labor does not move in, capital – factories and farms — moves out and wages go down anyway. Immigrants come to work in wide-open industries with lots of jobs, not those where there are few jobs and many workers. Thus, restrictions on immigration do little, in the long run of an open economy such as the US, to “protect” wages. To the extent wage-boosting immigration restrictions can work, the higher wages translate into higher prices to American consumers. The country as a whole – especially low-income consumers who tend to shop at Wal-Mart and benefit the most from low-priced goods – is not better off.

    The majority of workers do not work on factories and farms, Farms can’t be sent abroad, and neither can many factories, those that require skilled/high IQ workers from America in addition to unskilled ones to operate. Higher wages do translate into higher prices, but this is not an even tradeoff. Double the price of labor and the price of the good produced will rise only by the fraction of it’s original price that is composed of labor costs. The costs of capital and high-skilled/high-IQ labor do not increase. And the competition with other low-wage countries can be remedied by tariffs.

  2. Commenting here to confirm your judgment that I’d like Cochrane’s approach. One may quibble with the details, as Clover has, but the general stance of respecting citizen concerns and working to efficiently address them is a good one.

    Two additional remarks:

    1. When I state that continued engagement in the political fight in the US(/UK/France) is inexcusable, this is due to the pro-immigration side in those countries having a decades-long track record of trying to use naked power to ram policies through supermajority citizen opposition. If a new generation of politicians establishes a clean break from that habit, I might be happy to support them.

    2. I do think moral arguments are crucial *for setting goals*. For example, although I think Singapore is pretty close to the limit of what’s currently achievable with liberal migration policies, what it offers to guest workers is quite far from the equality of opportunity ideal. I believe it’s crucial to strive for more… and one can only draw this conclusion from moral arguments, not economic ones. (Economics helps you optimize a given aggregate utility function, but it does not tell you what function to choose.) It’s when you start assuming that all prima facie “morally right” actions have positive long-run economic/etc. consequences that you’re likely to go off the deep end; economics would have been “solved” centuries ago if reality were that nice and tidy.

    1. Since we seem to be having a nice agreeableness party here, I’d like to second both your points:

      1. I agree that the way mainstream politicians in the Anglosphere approach immigration is dishonest and leaves little, if anything, to commend it. In particular I dislike the tendency of mainstream politickers to essentially advocate moderately-closed borders and then smugly dismiss anyone who disagrees with them as a racist. (The recent brouhaha in the British EU Parliament elections is a case in point: people went stark raving mad about Nigel Farage’s remarks, when almost every single one of them has made just as bad, if not worse, comments.)

      2. I agree that Singapore’s immigration policies leave a lot to be desired morally. Singapore and the UAE show us that mass migration is absolutely possible even in the modern world, given some set of keyhole solutions. But not all keyhole solutions are efficient and/or morally justifiable. We ought to explore and experiment with alternative keyhole solutions, especially ones more consistent with Western standards of justice.

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