The “This Land is Full” Fallacy

I was looking for books on immigration, and came across this title: Crowded Land of Liberty: Solving America’s Immigration Crisis. Perhaps I’ll read it sometime, but this post is a response to the fallacy expressed in the title. It reminds me of a long debate I had on immigration with someone I respect a great deal. We had gotten stuck for hours on an ethical question, whether it can be good to avoid seeing someone in suffering so as to avoid becoming callous—I said no—but after that it somehow came out that he actually thought another argument was the clincher, and so obviously so that my advocating open borders at all could only come from a willful blindness to, or a disingenuous refusal to acknowledge, this clincher argument, which to him was of course the reason that of course we had open borders then but can’t have them today.

I will try to state this argument as sympathetically as I can. In the 19th century, America was a big, empty country, we needed people to settle it. America had open borders, not because we had any qualms about restricting migration, but simply because it wasn’t in our interest to restrict immigration when we had so much empty land. Today, the situation is different. The country already has plenty of people. It is even rather crowded. We don’t need more. On the contrary, more people would impoverish us, crowding us still further. Our new, more restrictive policy reflects the changes in our conditions and national interests. Such is the “this land is full” fallacy.

I was caught off guard by this argument because the intellectual communities I’ve been in for the past few years have consisted largely of economists or people trained in economics. Economists might sometimes fall for the “this land is full” fallacy, if their analytical brains aren’t turned on and they’re just being normal people. But to an economist qua economist, this fallacy would hardly occur, and if it did, it can be summed up and seen through quite quickly.

The reason it wouldn’t readily occur to an economist is that scarcity or abundance of mere land plays little or no role in economists’ explanations of the wealth and poverty of nations. It is typical to write down a production function like Y = A * K^a * L^b, a+b=1, where A is a technology parameter, K is capital, L is labor, and land is simply left out altogether. Economists argue about whether capital, broadly understood, can explain why some countries are rich and others poor, and about the extent to which technology differs across countries and (since ideas are non-rival and once invented are in principle available to all) why. If pressed, economists would admit that land must be part of the production function, but its contribution is small—I think Ed Prescott estimated it at 5%.

Economists have good reasons to ignore land. Empirically, land abundance doesn’t seem to have any connection with GDP per capita, unless, indeed, population density is a plus. Singapore and Hong Kong are very crowded and very rich. Rich Japan is very densely populated; to a lesser extent so are Britain, the Netherlands, and Western Europe generally. Of course, there are crowded poor countries too: Bangladesh stands out. But the poorest region of the world, sub-Saharan Africa, has very low, albeit rising, population density—Zambia, which has a little over 10 million in a territory much larger than France, is typical. Fast-growing, though still poor, China, not only has an enormous population, but that population is concentrated along the coast.

Some rich countries—the United States, Canada, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Ireland—do have a lot of acres per capita. But before we conclude that low population density is consisted with wealth, we must observe that large majorities of the populations of these countries are urban. As Wikipedia notes:

As of May 14, 2012, the United States has a total resident population of 313,544,041,[1] making it the third most populous country in the world.[2] It is a very urbanized population, with 82% residing in cities and suburbs as of 2008 (the worldwide urban rate is 50.5%[3]). This leaves vast expanses of the country nearly uninhabited… As of 2011, about 250 million Americans live in or around urban areas. That means more than three-quarters of the U.S. population shares just about three percent of the U.S. land area.[

Exactly. In states like Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana, Texas, or Alaska, you can drive for hours and see only a handful of small towns, and vast amounts of land that is used very lightly, e.g., for grazing cattle, or not at all. Where I live in the Central Valley of California, most of the flat land is used for agriculture—but as soon as the ground starts rising, the orchards and fields give way to wild nature—but sparsely populated. Urban land, where most people want to live, is not fundamentally scarce. Developers can easily buy out farmers and build houses and apartments as demand requires it. Those who feel crowded in big cities have plenty of places to go, as rural or wild as they like. If it’s not a feasible option for them, that’s not because there’s no land available or because it’s expensive, but because there’s nothing to do out there, no jobs, no entertainment, no shopping. People don’t want to do without the amenities of civilization.

So where does that leave the “this land is full” argument? Scarcity of land is not a problem we have. If anything, indeed, it’s probably less of a problem than it was in the 19th century, because while population has risen, agricultural yields have risen more, and urban/suburban life has become much more appealing relative to rural life than it was. “Crowded land of liberty” is nonsense. Or is it a sovereignty issue? Maybe in the 19th century Americans were worried that the country nominally owned so many acres that were de facto empty wilderness, and we had to establish sovereignty through settlement. But in that case, it’s odd that we would be eager for foreigners to settle these lands—that would seem, if anything, to compromise our sovereignty. Sovereignty concerns would seem to justify the very opposite behavior: restrict immigration in the 19th century, when we had to make sure that the open frontier was settled by indubitable Americans and thus incorporated into the country; open borders in the 20th century, after American settlement had turned notional sovereignty into facts on the ground, and foreigners could fit non-threateningly into this matrix.

The irony is that the most controversial type of immigrants today—farm laborers, those who come to work on the land—are precisely the ones that bear the greatest resemblance to 19th-century immigrants who were settling the frontier. Immigrants who take professional jobs in cities are less controversial, though it would seem that they, if anyone, tend to make the country more crowded. Not that that’s a problem. By moving to cities, by living in cities, Americans vote with their feet for population density, so more of it should be welcome. More people, from more places, can give second-tier American cities more of the fast-paced intensity and variety of a Manhattan or a Chicago. More people mean financial windfalls for the majority of Americans who are homeowners, but they do not mean that the price of a basic house for a family just starting out needs to rise: we can build more. Of course, in the 19th century, as today, most immigrants did not go to the frontier, but to cities, so things aren’t that different.

If 19th-century open borders were a function of having lots of empty land to fill, you’d expect Western European countries, where population was much denser and land scarcer, to have had closed borders then. They didn’t: open borders was the norm among civilized countries then, even those which were much more crowded than the US today. It’s hard for me to understand why people find the “this land is full” argument persuasive, yet they seem to. I expect that if you asked ten Americans why we had open borders in the 19th century and don’t have them now, nine of them would give some version of “then we needed to settle so much land.”

The photograph featured in the header of this post is of a German settler’s home in Queensland, Australia, circa 1880. Via the State Library of Queensland.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

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