The Lebanese diaspora, and victim-blaming of immigrants

The Economist recently ran an article about the Lebanese diaspora and its entrepreneurial bent. There are some interesting factoids in there I wasn’t aware of. Take the size of the diaspora for example:

More people of Lebanese origin live outside Lebanon than in it (perhaps 15m-20m, compared with 4.3m).

I am not sure what proponents of closed borders would have preferred to do about the Lebanese in the past century or so of human history. It is not quite enough to simply say “Let them alone in Lebanon,” when restrictionists quite clearly want to enact active policies to keep immigrants, Lebanese or otherwise, away. Given some Australian experiences with racial rioting, one can contend that there are restrictionists who would personally use physical force and abuse against the Lebanese.

But as the article notes, for all the “takers” in the Lebanese diaspora, there are plenty of makers (some of whom I did not realise were of Lebanese descent):

Carlos Slim, a Lebanese-Mexican telecoms tycoon, is the richest man in the world. Carlos Ghosn, a French-Lebanese-Brazilian, is the boss of both Renault (a French carmaker) and Nissan (a Japanese one). Nick Hayek, a Swiss-Lebanese, runs Swatch, the biggest maker of Swiss watches.

I am not sure if there are any panel or longitudinal studies which have been done on the Lebanese immigrant population anywhere, but it would be interesting to see the statistics. It would be especially interesting to see if they are bearers of “political externalities” or otherwise import arguably negative cultural/institutional aspects of their homeland. After all, Lebanon the state has not been faring the brightest:

In the past century and a half, waves of Lebanese have left for the Americas and west Africa. Lebanon’s long civil war prompted many more to pack. …the market is tiny. Lebanon’s GDP is about $42 billion, less than Rhode Island’s. Second, it is unstable. Conflict with Israel in 2006 temporarily shut down many of Ms Sfeir’s restaurants; the takeover of parts of Beirut by Hizbullah militants in 2008 disrupted them once more. … As if that were not enough, the Lebanese government chokes businesses with red tape. On average it takes 219 days to obtain a construction permit—assuming nothing goes wrong—and 721 days to enforce a contract in a Lebanese court, according to the World Bank. Patronage is pervasive and the internet is sluggish.

Gee, sounds like letting the Lebanese into my country would be a pretty bad idea, unless I happen to have worse institutions than they do. But the one meaningful statistic about Lebanese immigrant performance which The Economist cites is the Lebanese-American median household income of $67,000 (which is well above the median household income in the US; a rough approximation of that would be about $50,000, depending on how you slice it/round it).

To be explicit, a key assumption I often see in restrictionist arguments is that immigrants will import the “bad institutions” or “bad culture” of their homeland. True, sophisticated advocates of closed borders make more subtle versions of this argument, or avoid it altogether in favour of more defensible ones that barely bear it any resemblance (such as risk of technological slowdown). But it is this argument that often pops up as a reason to justify closed borders: people who are kept out get their just deserts because:

  1. Their country’s bad institutions are their personal fault
  2. They will inflict institutional harm on an ostensible superior country by virtue of simply living or working there

The Lebanese case is a concrete counter-example. How is the individual Lebanese seeking a better life outside his or her country personally responsible for any, let alone all of the following?

  1. The Lebanese civil war (and all its future repercussions for the state of the Lebanese socioeconomic environment)
  2. The small Lebanese market
  3. The Lebanese conflict with Israel
  4. The Hizballah insurgency
  5. Lebanese red tape

Perhaps via some roundabout way one can find a way to blame the typical Lebanese for some or all of these: in some sense, Lebanon has a participatory or democratic form of government, and so surely the individual Lebanese voter must bear some blame. On this basis, I suppose the rest of us trying to avoid getting sucked into horrible geopolitical conflicts, government bailouts of automobile manufacturers, or legislative gridlock should be doing our darndest to restrict immigration from the US then.

(As a sidenote, one can argue that the real reason Lebanon collapsed was because it permitted Palestinian and other insurgents to cross its borders, thus directly leading to the civil war, Hizballah insurgency, and conflict with Israel — i.e. loose Lebanese immigration policy created this problem. But as far as I know, no advocate of open borders endorses government inaction in the face of invaders bearing arms and ill intent. This seems to me akin to tarring a free trade advocate with the accusation that she supports unrestricted trade in assault rifles and nuclear weapons.)

The story of the Lebanese people and their diaspora is clear: open borders makes the lives of immigrants better. And by creating a global network, they make people in their country of origin better off too — and that’s assuming zero remittances, which is an unrealistic assumption. There may be good reasons for restrictionists to advocate keeping immigrants like the Lebanese out — but these good reasons need to be more clearly specified than some ridiculous assignation of blame to immigrants for the situation they are in. And restrictionists need to quantify just what’s being lost from potentially keeping out the next Carlos Ghosn, or the next immigrant demographic that actually raises the average household income.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


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