Pandemics and Open Borders

Does the current pandemic seal the case against open borders?  Though I foresee many readers’ incredulity, the correct answer is: no way.  Why not?  Key point: Borders are already about 98% closed to immigration.  As I’ve explained before:

Let C=total number of immigrants – legal and illegal – who annually enter the U.S. under existing laws.

Let F=the total number of immigrants who would annually enter the U.S. under open borders.

Under perfectly open borders, C=F.  Under perfectly closed borders, C=0.  Where does the status quo fall on this continuum?  The obvious metric:

Open Borders Index=C/F

With closed borders, the Open Borders Index=0.  With open borders, the Open Borders Index=1.

Regardless of your views on immigration, it’s hard to see how your estimate of the actually existing Open Borders Index could exceed .05.  After all, there are hundreds of millions of people who would love to move to the U.S. just to shine our shoes…

Which brings us to the crucial question: How much protection have 98% closed borders given us against the pandemic?  The answer: Virtually none.

To successfully prevent the spread of infection, you would have to do vastly more than permanently stop immigration.  You would also have to permanently stop both trade and tourism.  As long as foreigners can fly over for a visit, or unload their goods on our docks, foreigners can and will infect us with their diseases.  Indeed, as long as natives can fly away for a visit, or unload our goods on other country’s docks, natives can and will infect us with their diseases.  The sad fact is that even very low absolute levels of international contact have been more than sufficient to spread infection almost everywhere on Earth.  The marginal cost of higher levels of contact is therefore minimal.  Do you really think any countries in Europe would be much safer for long if they had merely “stayed out of the EU”?

In fact, if you’re focused solely on preventing the spread of infectious disease, immigrants are plainly better than tourists and sailors.  Few would-be immigrants would be deterred by a mandatory health inspection prior to entry, because they expect large long-run gains.  For tourists and sailors, in contrast, a mandatory health inspection would often be a deal-breaker.  Remember: Even a simple visa requirement reduces tourism by an estimated 70%.  Just imagine the effects of a serious medical exam for every entering or returning international traveler.

Admittedly, you could bite the bullet of full isolation, but that’s crazy.  Hoxha’s Albania and Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea were awful for many reasons, but autarchy was plainly high up the list.  And to repeat, to make this work you can’t simply keep foreigners out.  You must also keep natives in – or at least tell them, “Once you leave, you can never come back.”

What about temporary travel restrictions to quarantine a severe international disease?  As I’ve explained many times, I am not an absolutist.  Given strong evidence that modest restrictions on mobility have dramatic benefits, such restrictions are justifiable – intranationally as well as internationally.  But that is – and should be – a high bar indeed.  The freedom of movement that we have lost is the freedom of movement that we have denied to non-citizens for a century.

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Pandemics Are the Health of the State

Local, state, and federal governments are using the COVID-2019 coronavirus crisis to assert more and more direct control over the lives of individuals.

The president has “banned” travel to Europe and travel from China, though control over individuals’ movements has never been within the scope of the president’s constitutional power.*

Governments have “declared lockdowns,” effectively forcing people to stay inside their homes (in some cases with criminal penalties), discussions of “shelter-in-place” and other domestic travel restrictions. These in turn will weaken and (given enough time) destroy large parts of the private sector, creating a void into which government programs and government-run industries

The government is planning to send $1000 to every American, in one swoop making all 330 million US citizens recipients of government welfare for the first time in history.

A quasi-private governmental banker council has arbitrarily set the cost of borrowing money (at the bank level) at near zero, creating hundreds of billions of new dollars out of thin air.

After all the lessons and corruption of 2008, the federal government is again pursuing bailouts for companies that are failing.

States are mobilizing their national guards. The federal government is preparing quarantine centers.

Hardly anyone is batting an eye. Some people are begging for more “strong action” from their governments.

There’s no doubt that COVID-2019 is a serious risk. But it’s kind of hard not to notice that the response in terms of vastly ramped-up government control of society (with more to come) has well outpaced even a moderate Democrat’s idea of the proper role of a state vis-a-vis civil society. And if history shows one thing, governments that gain power for an “emergency” hardly ever give it up when the emergency is over (if, indeed, they ever admit that the emergency over).

We now face an even dangerous risk than this pandemic: that the state grows in this crisis to replace large parts of civil society that will never be allowed to grow back.

Yes, the virus grows exponentially. Yes, social distancing is one of the ways we know to flatten the curve. But the development of the virus is still quite early, not all of the data is in, and yet still many people seem to be willing to surrender liberties which took centuries to gain and centuries to preserve.

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*Even if the constitution granted this power, it would still be unethical for anyone to try to enforce it.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Jason Brennan: Do We Have a Duty to Obey the Government? (58m)

This episode features an interview of philosopher and political scientist Jason Brennan from 2013 by Trevor Burrus and Aaron Powell, hosts of the Free Thoughts podcast. Conventional wisdom holds that governments make laws and their citizens have a duty to obey them. Most people think that’s so obvious that we don’t even really need to discuss it. But is it? Governments certainly want us to obey them, but what sort of arguments are there for why we should? Purchase books by Jason Brennan on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (58m, mp3, 64kbps)

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “voluntaryist voices”. Support the podcast at Patreon.com/evc or PayPal.me/everythingvoluntary.

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Reflections on Guatemala

I first journeyed to Guatemala 20 years ago, hosted by Universidad Francisco Marroquín.  Two weeks ago, I returned for a delightful extended visit, accompanied by my Spanish-speaking elder sons and former EconLog blogger Jim Schneider.  I spent over a week doing guest lectures at UFM, then gave Friday’s keynote talk for the Reason Foundation’s “Reason in Guatemala” conference.  During our trip, we were also able to visit the awesome Mayan ruins of Tikal and Yaxha.  Here are my reflections on the experience.

1. Guatemala has dramatically improved over the last two decades.  Multinational businesses are now all over Guatemala City.  Restaurants and luxury products are all over, but so are businesses that cater to average Guatemalans.  Local grocery stores are packed with familiar international brands and products.  There are multiple Walmarts.  Even Costco is there, doing business as Pricesmart.  We argued about whether the Oakland Mall was more impressive than Tyson’s I, but it was definitely a tough call.  Smartphones are naturally ubiquitous.  Whenever we strayed from the tourist areas, we saw ordinary citizens enjoying simple material pleasures like Pollo Campero.

2. When I last visited Guatemala, the high-end businesses seemed grossly overbuilt; the shiny malls were almost empty.  Now, however, Guatemalans actually seem to be consuming the fruits of progress.  The cavernous Oakland Mall was packed at lunchtime on a weekday – and the pedestrianized streets near the National Palace were full of locals.  La Aurora Zoo was world-class, but we saw no other foreign tourists.

3. Our sponsors at UFM strove to keep us perfectly safe.  For the first few days, they drove us everywhere.  Yet almost every local assured us that four guys walking around Zone 10 in broad daylight were extremely safe.  By the end, we were walking comfortably through a wide range of neighborhoods, though only by day.  Crime is clearly down, thanks in no small part to massive private security.  Even small stores often have heavily-armed guards, and razor wire is almost always in your field of vision.

5. The greatest danger to pedestrians is probably the poor sidewalks; there are many dangerous pits even in elite neighborhoods.  The problem is so dire and the cost of fixing it is so small that I’m surprised that local businesses haven’t raised money to solve it.  I know Latin America’s philanthropic tradition is weak.  Yet good publicity aside, wouldn’t the Oakland Mall soon recoup a $50-100k investment in the surrounding sidewalks?  Would local government really block this public-spirited initiative?

6. We didn’t have to walk far to see absolute poverty.  No one looked malnourished, and even kids living in shacks and huts usually wore new, store-bought clothes.  Still, we saw families living in shacks (in Guatemala City, especially near the airport) and huts (especially on the drive to Yaxha).  During one severe traffic jam, we saw kids under ten washing car windows.  We also witnessed several families of clowns busking in the streets.

7. By official measures, Guatemala is dramatically poorer than any of the Caribbean islands we recently toured, with per capita GDP of $3200 nominal and $7600 PPP.  Yet this is mightily difficult to reconcile with what we saw with our own eyes.  Overall, the Caribbean islands looked a lot like the road from Flores to Yaxha – a mixture of modest modern houses and primitive shacks and huts.  Everything else in Guatemala looked vastly better than St. Maarten or St. Kitts.  While this partly reflects higher population, the biggest contrast is that almost every Guatemalan looks like he has useful work to do.  The Caribbean islanders, in contrast, have high levels of desperate peddling and outright idleness.

8. Guatemalan prices confused not only us, but local economists as well.  Grocery prices are very high.  Guatemala’s Pricesmart and my local Costco sell many identical goods, so I can confidently say that the former’s prices were roughly twice as high as I normally pay.  Local chains were even pricier.  One prominent local businessman blamed Guatemala’s low port capacity – and impishly shared his thrilling plans to build a big new port in the near future.  Restaurant meals aren’t cheap either; everything from fast food to premium steaks costs about the same as it would in Virginia.  The only product that was blatantly cheaper than usual was Uber – about one-third of the U.S. rate.  (Since gas prices were a bit higher than in Virginia, drivers’ take-home pay must be low indeed).  Other services, such as tour guides, were also big bargains.

9. As I toured Guatemala, I couldn’t help but notice how happy the people looked, especially the women.  I wondered if my impression could just be confirmation bias, but now that I’m back home I’m confident that the contrast is stark.  Guatemalan men look at least marginally happier than American men.  Guatemalan women look much happier than American women.  You could say that this merely reflects cultural differences in expressiveness, but that strikes me as sheer stubborn denial.

10. UFM was the jewel of our visit.  UFM could well be the most beautiful of the hundred-odd universities I’ve toured in my life.   Built in a ravine, it elegantly blends distinctive architecture with gorgeous tropical flora.  UFM also hosts two stunning museums – Popol Vuh (archaeology) and Ixchel (textiles).  Best of all, UFM is an academic libertarian paradise.  The ideas and imagery of my intellectual heroes adorn the whole campus – Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Ludwig von Mises are only the beginning.  Yet there is no sign of dogmatic orthodoxy.  Good manners prevail; faculty and students are eager to hear new ideas and debate old ones.   Unlike most other institutions, UFM administrators are especially intellectually engaged.  UFM President Gabriel Calzada Alvarez was overjoyed to talk ideas with my sons for hours.

11.  The students of UFM look even happier than the rest of their countrymen.  You could say this is because they’re drawn from Guatemala’s richest families, but so are Americans in the Ivy League – and those kids are hardly pictures of good cheer.  The gender gap was so big that I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own ideas; female UFM students appear extraordinarily happy.  UFM econ’s male/female ratio is also strangely low; several of the classes I taught were virtually all-female.

12. My Guatemalan audiences took to Open Borders like fish to water.  The cultural and political threat of Muslim immigration was the sole recurring objection.  In Guatemalan eyes, Latin America and the U.S. share a common Judeo-Christian culture, so many were surprised to hear how many U.S. citizens view Latin Americans as culturally alien or even unassimilable.

13. On the latter issue, the Guatemalans are plainly correct.  Pre-assimilation to the North American way of life is prevalent and intense.  Virtually everyone at UFM speaks and understands English well.  About a fifth of the public signs in Guatemala City are entirely in English, and an additional third are in Spanglish.  The Guatemalan elite already lives the American dream, más o menos.  The average Guatemalan struggles to do the same.  A dozen different people emphatically described Guatemalans as “deeply conservative,” but Tarantino was on t.v. every time I flipped the channels.

14. Even Guatemalan libertarians rarely complained about specific domestic government policies, but if you look at their Economic Freedom of the World ranking, there is plenty to decry.  Guatemala gets great scores on Size on Government and Sound Money, and a good score on Freedom to Trade Internationally.  Yet it gets an awful score for Legal System & Property Rights, and an even worse score for Regulation.  New construction projects are all over Guatemala City, but one of the locals told me it takes 2-3 years to obtain permission to build.  Imagine how much construction there’d be if you cut the delay down to 2-3 months or 2-3 weeks!

15. So what do Guatemalans complain about?  I asked one of my classes to tell me what most bothered the average Guatemalan; then I proposed workable policy responses for each problem.  Their first answer was “corruption.”  I suggested hiring a team of Swiss or Singaporeans to take over Guatemala’s internal affairs department.  They saw the logic of importing trustworthiness, but told me that Guatemalans wouldn’t accept it.  Their next answer was “traffic.”  I proposed electronic road pricing.  They again saw the logic, and again told me that Guatemalans wouldn’t accept it – even if the gas tax were abolished at the same time.  My students also saw crime – especially kidnapping – as a grave problem.  They were almost dumbstruck when I suggested a big switch from incarceration to flogging, even though Guatemala’s indigenous peoples already heavily rely on corporal punishment.  In a poor country with heavy corruption and high crime, the case for flogging is mighty indeed.  Just ask criminal-justice reformer Jason Brennan!

16. If I had to move to another country, Guatemala would be high on my list.  First and foremost, I love the UFM community.  American liberalism and conservatism are intellectual dead-ends, and I would enjoy forever escaping from both.  I also prefer to be around very happy people, and on that score Guatemala handily beats the U.S.A.  Guatemala does have some scary features, but the longer I stayed, the more I relaxed.  Yet for now, I continue to prefer the U.S.  Wages are obviously much higher here, and PPP measures notwithstanding, a dollar goes further in the U.S. than in Guatemala.

17. The Mayan archaeological sites we visited deserve all the hyperbolic adjectives people apply to them.  The contrast between the pyramids and the palaces, however, is vast.  The pyramids you leave thinking, “Human beings made these?!  Without wheels?!”  (As well as, “They performed human sacrifices here?!  What the hell was wrong with these Mayans?!”)  The “palaces” of the Mayan leaders, in contrast, look smaller than many apartments in Fairfax.  To reverse Galbraith, the Mayan elite lived lives of public affluence and private squalor.

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Instead of Tax “Holidays,” How About Real Tax Cuts?

Writing at the Florida Politics blog, A.G. Gancarski reports on three sales tax “holiday” bills working their way through the state’s legislature. Two of the bills would lengthen existing holidays on school supplies and storm preparedness products. The third would expand the holiday habit to hunting and fishing items.

According to the Sales Tax Institute,  at least 16 states have sales tax holidays scheduled this year on goods ranging from clothing to school supplies to generators to guns.

I’m all for lower taxes, but tax holidays aren’t about lower taxes. They’re about three things: Social engineering, political grandstanding, and special interest pandering.

Social engineering entails using the tax code to encourage some particular spending versus other kinds of spending.

If I offer a tax deduction for contributions to your favorite church, but not for payments to your favorite liquor store, I’m trying to encourage you to go to church and/or discourage you from boozing. Requiring you to pay  sales tax on a lawn mower, a container of motor oil, or a bottle of Vitamin C no matter when you buy them, but not on a pack of ball-point pens, an emergency generator, or an AR-15 if you buy them between Date X and Date Y, has the same effect.

The politicians grandstanding on these holiday proposals are hoping you’ll notice, and credit them for, the small tax breaks on a few things at particular times — and not think to ask why everything else is taxed all the time. They’re trying to buy your vote, but they don’t want to pay full price for it.

And it should come as no surprise that the biggest supporters of tax holidays on Product X (and likely the biggest campaign contributors to politicians proposing those holidays) are the makers and sellers of Product X.

If the legislators proposing these tax holidays were serious about cutting taxes, they’d propose reducing tax rates on everything, all the time, not on a few things now and then. That would be good for all taxpayers, including lower-income citizens who don’t have as much discretionary income to waste on the politically favored item of the week.

Florida’s general state sales tax rate is 6%. Instead of reducing it to 0% for laptops this week and storm windows next week and ammunition the week after that, I’d like to see my state’s holiday-happy politicians propose cutting the general rate to 5% on everything, year-round.

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Entanglements II

Nobody asked but …

George Washington spoke, “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world.”  I was reminded of this when I recently read an article covering the revelation of how lost America is in matters of foreign policy.  The article was written by Laurence Vance, published by The Future of Freedom Foundation, “The Impeachment Hearings Inadvertently Show the Insidious Nature of U.S. Foreign Policy.”

Quantum physicists will tell you that entanglements permanently, forever, affect the behavior and essential nature of all entities thereby bound.  When nation A aligns with nations B, C, D, . . . , nation A aligns with all that is either good or bad with those nations.  Think about it — two or more of the major 2020 candidates for POTUS are indelibly connected with the Ukraine.  Everyone who votes in 2020 will be required to make a statement about this country’s relationship with the Ukraine.  Our misleaders have made this statement (whatever its implications) for the citizens of the USA.

Thank you, but “no.”

— Kilgore Forelle

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