Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs

This is a rare, subtle, and fascinating argument against open borders. The rough claim is that open borders could destroy technical innovation in the developed world to an extent so significant that the net effect of the lack of development on the developing world is negative. This is somewhat similar to, but not quite the same as, the cheap labor-technological slowdown argument.

Cutting-edge version of the argument

The strongest version of the argument has been offered by Open Borders commenter BK in a series of comments. Nathan Smith quotes and discusses these comments in the blog post open borders and the economic frontier, part 1 and BK has some follow-up comments on the same post with more clarification of his position. Smith continued the discussion in part 2 and part 3.

Another framing of the argument can be found in Do Immigrants Import Their Economic Destiny? How migration shapes the prosperity of countries by Garett Jones on Evonomics,September 17, 2016. As this is a more recent formulation, it is not discussed much below. Some similar themes were covered in a debate between Garett Jones and Bryan Caplan. You can read Caplan’s thoughts on the debate here.

Previous versions of the argument

The argument is made, for instance, by Randall Parker in the blog post Benthamite Libertarian Collectivists Wrong on Open Borders for ParaPundit. Parker writes:

Many economists find the idea of Open Borders and the free movement of labor appealing in part because they see the influx of poor immigrants as leading to a net increase in total utility which English philosopher Jeremy Bentham described as “the greatest happiness principle”. Like the 20th century socialists and communists who pursued collectivist goals these modern day free market collectivsts are promoting policies which will backfire and harm the interests of both natives of Western developed countries and the vast bulk of the poor people in the world. I’m going to argue a few points here:

  • Low IQ immigrants will inevitably lower the living standards of higher IQ natives by lowering incomes, raising taxes, increasing labor market distorting racial preferences, raising crime, and lowering the quality of government.
  • Low IQ immigrants pull higher IQ people away from creative design, engineering, and science work.
  • Therefore one result of an influx of lower IQ immigrants will be to slow the rate of technological advances. This will delay technological advances which are the only hope for that half of humanity that have IQs below 90.
  • One obvious piece of evidence for my argument can be seen from the incomes and occupations of higher IQ people in lower IQ countries. High IQ people earn less on average if they live in low IQ countries. This suggests they are less productive in low IQ countries.
  • Another obvious piece of evidence is found in the steepness of the slope of lines in charts of national per capita GDP versus IQ. The slopes of graphs of per capita GDP versus IQ are even getting steeper with time. The steeper the slope the wronger the Benthamites. Steeper slopes mean lower IQ people lower the productivity of higher IQ people.
  • Higher IQ people have rights too and their well being should not be sacrificed by altruistic collectivist Benthamites.

First off, some basic observations: Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen have observed in their book IQ and the Wealth Of Nations that per capita GDP is strongly correlated with national average IQ (and this is a link to Phil Rushton’s review) (also see Steve Sailer’s review). This shouldn’t be surprising. Higher intellectual ability enables greater feats of engineering, science, management, cooperation, and problem solving.

Building on this idea La Griffe du Lion proposed his Smart Fraction Theory of IQ and the Wealth of Nations and further refined this theory in his Smart Fraction Theory II: Why Asians Lag. Well, look at table 7 of the latter link, which is a graph of per capita GDP versus mean verbal IQ. I argue that table 7 demonstrates why the Benthamite Libertarian Collectivists are wrong – even for achieving the goals they want to achieve. In a nutshell: the steeper the slope of that curve the less it makes sense to mix lower IQ populations with higher IQ populations. Why? Total output and the rate of technological advance will be slowed by mixing higher and lower IQ populations.

I do not share the collectivist goals of the Benthamites and think they are sacrificing my own best interests (and, might I add, the interests of the vast majority of the American people) in the pursuit of their collectivist Benthamite utilitarianism. But so bent are they on their goals that they, like socialists and communists of the 20th century, haven’t stopped to notice that their preferred policy prescriptions are counter-productive for their own goals.

Another place this argument was made is part of a blog comment by Two Things. The relevant portion of the comment is quoted below.

I won’t contest your “moral” argument for immigration here, but please note that the IQ vs. poverty/institutions argument, call it “selfish” or “group serving” if you like, is not a simple rehash of “cheap foreigners steal natives’ jobs.”

The “place premium” you cite is contingent and likely evanescent. Just as workers with similar human capital have similar earnings in Salzburg and Munich, once enough low-IQ workers move into a high-IQ country, it won’t be a high-IQ country any more and said “place premium” will evaporate. (Over some time, of course.) You should consider the implications of the fact that “place premium” runs both ways; i.e., a rich-country worker who emigrates to a poor country will generally earn less there than his twin back home (unless he’s a member of a rent-seeking regime). Since “place premium” can be “place penalty,” rich- country workers wisely avoid migration as avidly as poor- country workers seek it. However, only if natural population growth in a high-IQ country exceeds low-IQ immigration can workers in the high-IQ country avoid “emigrating without moving.” Though they remain in their homes, immigration can potentially surround high-average-IQ workers with the same low-IQ foreigners they rationally wish to avoid living among!

Since the “place premium” cannot persist under conditions of mass migration, there is less of a Caplanesque “moral” case for said migration. Certainly some low-IQ immigrants could benefit from “place premium” before it evaporated but they would be eating the seed corn. Rich-country people could do more for poor-country people by sending them gifts, something rich-country people could continue indefinitely if their institutions and economy were not wrecked by low-IQ immigration. Poor-country despots will confiscate most direct gifts, so the ideal gifts are simply the results of technical innovation in rich countries blessed with the good institutions high-average-IQ’s make possible. Technical advances from high-IQ countries have done more for people in the underdeveloped world than migration ever has or could.

The argument is restated in summary form, and then argued against, by Nathanael Smith in a subsequent comment on the same blog post:

First, Two Things’ argument seems to be that segregating the high-IQ populations of rich countries from the low-IQ populations of poor countries actually benefits the poor countries more than free immigration would, because it accelerates technological progress: “Technical advances from high-IQ countries have done more for people in the underdeveloped world than migration ever has or could.” Now it is clear that this is empirically false since the typical migrant from a poor country raises his income by an order of magnitude or so, and according to the best estimates of GDP per capita in poor countries all the technological progress in history has failed to do that.

But does Two Things’ critique of free immigration work in theory? (I’ll assume for the sake of argument that Americans have higher IQs than foreigners, though I don’t know if it’s true.) Or rather– since it is certainly incomplete as it stands– what would we have to add to it to make it work in theory? First, a nation’s technological creativity would have to depend on average IQ, not the quantity of high-IQ people, which immigration would not reduce. If segregating high-IQ people accelerates their production of ideas, it would make sense within rich countries as well to segregate the high-IQ people from the low-IQ ones. But wait a minute… we already do that! We segregate them in highly selective universities and workplaces, through non-coercive voluntary arrangements. Why wouldn’t that work just as well under open borders? The country is certainly big enough to accommodate the huddled masses and still have room for faculty lounges and think tanks!

Of course, even if lowering the average IQ of Americans through immigration *would* reduce *US* per capita technological productivity, it would presumably either raise the technological productivity of source countries by raising their average IQ, or, if it lowered average IQ in both places, would raise the US population enough to increase its total technological productivity. No doubt one could invent strange functional forms for the relationship between IQ, population, and technological progress under which global IQ segregation would accelerate technological progress, but is there really any reason to think such functional forms are accurate?

I’m also unclear why Two Things’ whole argument is not refuted by the Flynn effect. By the time the “place effect” wears off, average IQs would have risen.

If coercion is justified as a means of segregating people by IQ, immigration restrictions are hardly the most logical way to go about it. What we should do is (a) banish low-IQ people from the US, and (b) allow in, or if they refuse to come buy/draft, high-IQ people from abroad. Any decent person’s horror at these suggestions expresses the conscience’s recognition of the fact that segregation by IQ is not an acceptable reason to use coercion.

Related writings:

"The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP" — Bryan Caplan