Recently, Tyler Cowen linked to a paper by Hal Pashler from the Department of Psychology, University of California San Diego: “U.S. Immigrants’ Attitudes Toward Libertarian Values.”
I am not sure the paper has been submitted to any peer-reviewed journal, let alone been accepted by one. That would be interesting to know. My guess, however, is that it would probably need some re-working before it had a chance. As I will point out below, data are presented in a selective way, the author never reflects on what his results actually show, and the main conclusion seems to be more about making a political point.
Even though I have some reservations about the quality of the paper, I have to admit that I liked it because it puts objections to open borders in perspective. Not in the way the author perhaps thinks. Actually, I will argue that if immigrants are not too different from current foreign-born residents, Hal Pashler has shown that the negative political fallout from open borders would probably be minimal to non-existent.
Now let’s look at the paper in detail.
Hal Pashler has focused on questions in the General Social Survey that are relevant to libertarians. One set of questions relates to free expression, whether someone should be allowed to speak, teach, or publish certain views. He then goes on to compare the average response of American-born residents to that of foreign-born residents, averaging over the three types of expression. It would have been interesting to see a breakdown to the three dimensions of speak, teach, and publish. But then this information is unfortunately missing.
Here’s what Hal Pashler finds (cf. page 3 and 4, I have to eyeball the percentages from the graph as no figures are included; apart from that, I found it strange how bars start at 20%, so the shortest look especially short):
A majority of American-born residents support free expression for atheists (79%), Communists (69%), homosexuals (87%) and racists (65%). Only a minority of 46% support free expression for anti-US Muslim clerics. For foreign-born residents, the respective percentages are all lower: 66% (atheists), 61% (Communists), 86% (homosexuals), 43% (racists), and 27% (anti-US Muslim clerics).
If I understand the thrust of Hal Pashler’s argument correctly, then this is supposed to be a building block in some larger argument about political externalities. Let’s see how that might work.
A naïve view would be that the law is whatever a majority wants. This cannot be true here, though. If it were, then free expression for anti-US Muslim clerics would be illegal. It is not. Of course, that’s because of the First Amendment which bundles different types of free expression into one single package. So if you average out over the examples of free expression, you obtain a majority of American-born residents who support the First Amendment.
And now here’s the catch: So do foreign-born residents! Or to put it differently: No matter how many immigrants there are (at least if they are not very different from current foreign-born residents), the First Amendment looks safe.
Of course, I ignore the additional complication that you cannot restrict or abolish the First Amendment with a simple majority alone. You need a new constitutional amendment. To start the process you would need either two-thirds of the States in support, or two-thirds of both Houses of Congress. And then three-fourth or at least 38 States would have to ratify the amendment.
Even if you could unbundle the First Amendment and selectively apply it only to certain types of expression, not much would change. Free expression for atheists, Communists, and homosexuals still looks pretty safe. As for anti-US Muslim clerics, they would have a hard time no matter what. No change here either.
Only racists could have a problem. If there were 68% foreign-born residents in the US, then it would be 50% pro and 50% contra free expression for racists. You would need more than that, and actually much more with the US Constitution, to make a difference, though. But then with 13% foreign-born residents now, you would have to add in about 290 million immigrants, just to get to a tie. However, according to a Gallup survey, there are only 145 million people worldwide who are interested in immigrating to the US. Even if that turned out to be an under-estimate by a wide margin, racists could relax!
The same goes for other points Hal Pashler looks into (cf. page 5). Open borders would not change majorities on legalization of marijuana or the legality or illegality of pornography. Both a majority of American-born and foreign-born residents are against legalizing marijuana (at least according to the General Social Survey data). And as for pornography, a minority of American-born residents are in favor of illegality under all circumstances, a majority in favor of illegality under some circumstances, as are foreign-born residents with almost identical percentages.
Regarding the question whether the government should do more or less (cf. page 6), Hal Pashler relies on responses on a scale from 1 (strongly in favor) to 5 (strongly against), 3 being neutral. Now, on average American-born residents are minimally against more government activism at 3.18, foreign-born residents are minimally in favor at 2.75. This means that the fraction of foreign-born residents would have to rise to 42% of the population, amounting to an additional 165 million immigrants, just to move average opinion to neutral.
Hal Pashler’s data on Affirmative Action are hard to interpret (cf. page 6). Respondents were asked about preferences in hiring blacks, with a choice between “strongly support”, ”support”, “oppose”, and “strongly oppose”. However, for some reason Hal Pashler only reports results for “strongly opposed”, “strongly support” as well as “support”.
As for the latter, it is not clear what Hal Pashler means when he writes: “Overall, 23.76% of FBRs [i.e. foreign-born residents] supported racial preferences while 18.27% of ABRs [i.e. American-born residents] did.” It might mean that respondents opted only for the simple “support” position. Or they opted either for the “support” position or the “strongly support” position. Even if it were the former, the sum of the “support” and “strongly support” positions would amount to only 35.7% for foreign-born residents and 28.5% for American-born residents, both clear minorities.
53.8% of American-born residents are strongly opposed to Affirmative Action while only 45.9% of foreign-born residents are. But then we don’t get the numbers for the simple “opposed” position. If it accounts for the remainder, then a clear majority of foreign-born residents were in the “opposed” or “strongly opposed” camp as well, which makes you wonder why Hal Pashler left the data out. In any way: There is Affirmative Action in the US! So there seems to be no simple relationship between majority opinion and actual policies.
The only question where Hal Pashler might have a point is the one on programs to mitigate income inequality. It is perhaps of note, that libertarians do not have to oppose all proposals aiming in such a direction. For example, they should favor doing away with regulations that also have the effect of increasing income inequality. But maybe most policies under this heading run counter to a libertarian position and are best described as coercive redistribution.
For the respective question the scale goes from 1 (strongly pro) to 7 (strongly against), 4 being neutral. American-born residents sit almost on the fence at 4.04, whereas foreign-born residents are slightly inclined at 3.64. Actually, with 13% of the population foreign-born, over-all public opinion would be minimally on the pro side at 3.99. More foreign-born residents could then shift the average further into pro territory. However, we are not talking about the average position becoming pro or even strongly pro reducing income inequality. It would still safely round to a neutral stance.
And then, if you think about the disconnect between the slightly anti-government views of American-born residents and the policies of the US government, it is hard to tell how much of a difference an average would make that is neutral with a minimal spin in the pro and not the contra direction.
Unfortunately, there are no comparisons with other countries. My guess would be that Europeans are quite a bit more favorable to government activism and redistribution than are Americans. Probably the most Hal Pashler could prove for redistribution, if that’s what mitigating income inequality is about, is that the US might shift somewhat in the direction of a typical European country. That may be less than perfect, but hardly a disaster.
That’s also why the punch line “[…] the ultimate political impact of continuing immigration (and possible legalization of the status of undocumented immigrants) may hold in store a rude shock for libertarians and libertarian-sympathizers” is completely lost on me. Even more so, as immigration at current levels or legalizing a few millon undocumented immigrants does not even come close to the scenarios above where majorities might turn into minorities.
To sum up: Hal Pashler convincingly shows that, in the concrete case of the current US, open borders would leave majorities on almost all issues intact that are dear to libertarians, at least if immigrants are not vastly unlike current foreign-born residents. Libertarians may have a problem that often their positions are not mainstream. But that is true, with immigration or without.
For some issues, such as free expression for racists or less government activism, immigration would have to be extremely high just to move public opinion to a tie. Only on one issue, redistribution, there is a risk that average opinion might shift slightly in a European direction, the political consequences of which are anything but clear.
This still leaves out all considerations of how a constitutional order can protect not only popular, but also unpopular rights, and makes changes harder than just winning over a majority in a poll. It also takes for granted that change is imminent as soon as a majority of 50.1% becomes a minority of 49.9%, and that there can be no appreciable disconnect between public opinion and actual government policies.
Hal Pashler makes the case that foreign-born residents hold less libertarian views than American-born residents, who are not particularly libertarian to begin with. A lot of chi-squareds get thrashed to obtain significant results for this. If that’s all Hal Pashler wants to show, he is successful.
However, this is a red herring if it is meant as a first step towards a case for negative political externalities. While immigrants might move the US in a less libertarian direction, the size and probable consequences of that shift would be anything but dramatic. It is actually hard to argue that even a lot of immigration would change anything at all.
So libertarians can check out of the emergency room and concentrate on getting their message across with both American-born and foreign-born residents.
- Vipul Naik: Open borders, political externalities, and tipping points
- Sam Wilson [hosted by Bryan Caplan on EconLog]: The GSS and the Political Externalities of Immigration: A Guest Post by Sam Wilson
- Open Borders: Political externalities