Open Borders: Now Do You See What We’re Missing?

In Open Borders, I never claim that immigration restrictions make life in the First World bad.  I don’t try to scare people into supporting more immigration, a la, “Without more immigrants, we’re doomed.”  What I claim, rather, is that immigration is a massive missed opportunity.  While life is fine the way it is (or was, until a month ago), there is no reason to settle for “fine.”  If there is a dependable way to dramatically improve our lives, we should seize it.

What then are we missing?  The standard and correct answer is: tens of trillions of dollars every year; see Clemens’ classic “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” article.  Allowing human talent to move from low-productivity countries to high-productivity countries greatly enriches mankind.  A mind really is a terrible thing to waste.  Until recently, though, these tens of trillions of dollars of unrealized gains have been awfully hard to visualize.

Now, human tragedy provides crystal clarity.  If you examine almost any American population center today, it doesn’t look bad – just empty.  Enormous economic sectors – restaurants, entertainment, retail, and much more – have suddenly shut down to fight coronavirus.  As a result, tens of millions of folks are stuck in their homes, wasting their talents, and contributing little to the world.  An optimist would correctly remind us that we’re hardly starving, and we have Netflix.  Yet an optimist should also gladly acknowledge that it would be awesome to suddenly recover all that we’ve lost.  If the virus vanished overnight, a Niagara Falls of missing productivity would be unleashed.

Imagine, though, if we’d never known anything better than what we have today.  If you claimed that we were missing trillions of dollars of gains, most people would be deeply pessimistic.  Some would bemoan the fate of grocery stores if restaurants were legalized, or warn that releasing tens of millions of homebodies into the workforce would lead to catastrophic unemployment.  The main mental block, though, is that people would have trouble visualizing a straightforward way to make us trillions of dollars richer.

If you can get over this mental block, if you can see what we’ve lost, then it’s only a small step further to see what we’re missing.  If people were free to take a job anywhere on Earth, humanity would have more agriculture, more manufacturing, more services.  We would have more restaurants, more homes, more elder care.  We would have more doctors and more janitors, more meal delivery and more cars to deliver the meals.  If coronavirus can eliminate 90% of the restaurant business, open borders can add 90% to the restaurant business.  You’ve seen the former with your own eyes, so you should have no trouble seeing the latter with the eye of the mind.

To be fair, you could demur, “We’ve shut down most of the domestic labor market to prevent the spread of a horrible disease.  Similarly, we shut down most of the international labor market to prevent something similarly horrible.”  The difference, of course, is that the coronavirus is all too real, while the horrors of immigration are speculative at best.  Indeed, on inspection they’re largely imaginary.  And while many will now be add infectious disease to the list of social ills to blame on immigrants, that argument too makes little sense.

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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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Don’t Need Rescue from Everything

I’m surprised at how seriously people are taking the coronavirus. I’m even more surprised at how many believe government can save them from it, or that it’s even government’s job to do so.

This is the same sort of thinking that has led to the recent plague of “red flag” legislation.

If you believe you need politicians to save you from a virus or from someone’s gun, then you’ll keep handing control of your life over to anyone who promises to rescue you. Whether they actually can or not.

It’s not only diseases and guns. It seems almost everyone wants to be saved from something. Maybe they fear immigrants who don’t comply with unconstitutional anti-immigration legislation. Or maybe they want to be rescued from “inequality,” whatever they imagine it to be.

Others may want to be saved from weather, poverty, different political ideologies or other religions they don’t follow, or from rich people. Some beg to be rescued from their student loan debt or their own bad choices.

Drugs, other drivers, people who might appear to be smoking but aren’t, messy yards, backyard chickens, loud parties, tall grass, and more are all things someone out there wants government to save them from.

If this seems like a long list, you are right. Yet it barely scratches the surface. There appears to be no end to the number of things you could list that some people, somewhere at some time, have begged government to save them from.

Government encourages this pandemic of cowardice.

H. L. Mencken, a favorite writer of mine from early in the 20th Century, noticed this and called it out. He wrote: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

He’s right, and it’s working.

Were your hobgoblins listed above or are yours something else entirely?

It’s not that these things don’t exist, but making them into hobgoblins you fear irrationally is a path to slavery. You become so desperate to be saved you’ll accept those fanning the flames of fear as your self-proclaimed saviors.

Fear is the reaction to feeling you won’t be able to cope; of suspecting you aren’t enough. It’s a lie. You are enough.

You don’t need to be rescued from every little thing. I know you can do it without depending on government or its legislation. To conquer fear, get busy doing what needs to be done.

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The Leiter-Caplan Socialism Debate

Last night, I debated the University of Chicago’s Brian Leiter on “Capitalism, Social Democracy, and Socialism” at the University of Wisconsin. Leiter wrote the precise resolution:

“Social democracy is preferable to market capitalism, but ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system.”

Here’s my opening statement; I’ve debated Elizabeth Bruenig and John Marsh this general topic before.


All First World countries are already social democracies.  Their governments continue to allow markets to provide most goods and services, but they heavily regulate these markets, heavily subsidize favored sectors like education and health, and heavily redistribute income.  The U.S. is moderately less social democratic than France or Sweden, but the idea that we have “market capitalism” while they have “social democracy” is hyperbole.  If you favor social democracy, you should be happy because your side won long ago: free-market rhetoric notwithstanding, the U.S. has Social Security, Medicare, Medicare, and public education, and strict regulation of labor markets, construction, and other major industry.  My view, however, is that social democracy is a awful mistake.  Despite its bad press, market capitalism would be much better than what we have now.

Advocates of social democracy typically claim credit for three major improvements over market capitalism.  First, they’ve used redistribution to greatly reduce poverty.  Second, they’ve used regulation to make markets work better.  Third, they’ve used government funding to provide wonderful services that markets neglect.  I say they’ve greatly overstated their success on all three counts – while conveniently neglecting heavy collateral damage.

Let’s start with redistribution.  The rhetoric of redistribution revolves around “helping the poor.”  When you look at redistribution in the real world, however, this is grossly misleading.  The U.S. government spends far more on the elderly – most of whom aren’t poor – than it spends on actual poverty programs.  Programs like Social Security and Medicare are popular because they “help everyone.”  But “helping everyone” is extremely wasteful because most of the people government helps would have been quite able to take care of themselves.  Instead, we absurdly tax everyone to help everyone.

This humanitarian rhetoric rings even more hollow when you examine the most important forms of government regulation.  Domestically, nothing does more harm than our draconian regulation of the construction industry.  This regulation, primarily state and local, makes it very hard to build new housing, especially in high-wage places like New York City and the Bay Area.  It’s hard to build tall buildings.  It’s hard to build multi-family housing.  You have to waste a lot of valuable land; builders put houses on an acre of land because zoning laws force them to do so.  The connection between this regulation and exorbitant housing prices is almost undeniable.  In lightly-regulated areas of the country like Texas, business supplies ample cheap housing.  Anytime someone tells you regulation makes markets work better, just look at San Francisco’s housing market for a reality check.  And this hardly one tiny failure of regulation; housing absorbs about 40% of the average Americans’ budget.

Immigration regulation is an even more egregious failure.  The single best way for people around the world to escape poverty is to move to high-productivity countries like the U.S. and get a job.  This benefits not only immigrants, but us, because we’re their customers; the more they sell us, the better-off we are.  A hundred years ago, immigration to the U.S. was almost unregulated, giving people all over the world a viable way to work their way out of poverty.  Now, in contrast, immigration is very tightly regulated – especially for those most in need.  Economists’ estimates of the global harm of these regulations sum to tens of trillions of dollars a year, because each immigrant worker vastly enriches the world, and hundreds of millions of workers wish to come.  Again, this is the opposite of one tiny failure of regulation.

Finally, what about education, health care, and other sectors that government subsidizes?  I say these policies are crowd-pleasing but terribly wasteful.  Yes, more educated workers make more money, but the main reason is not that you’re learning useful skills.  Most of what you study in school is irrelevant in the real world.  Degrees mostly pay by convincing employers that you’re smarter, harder-working, and more conformist than the competition.  That’s why there’s been severe credential inflation since World War II: the more degrees workers have, the more degrees you need to convince employers not to throw your application in the trash.  Pouring money on education is an exercise in futility.

The same goes for health care.  Almost every researcher who measures the effect of health care on health agrees that this effect is much smaller than the public imagines.  Diet, exercise, substance abuse, and other lifestyle choices are much more important for health than access to medicine.  But these facts notwithstanding, the government lavishes funding on health care that barely improves our health.  If this seems implausible, just compare American life expectancy to Mexico’s.  Medicare plus Medicaid cost well over a trillion dollars a year, let we only live a year-and-a-half longer.

A reasonable social democrat could object: Fine, actual social democracies cause great harm and waste insane amounts of money.  But we can imagine a social democracy that limits itself to helping hungry kids and refugees, fighting infectious disease, and other well-targeted programs for the betterment of humanity.  Frankly, abolishing everything except these few programs sounds really close to market capitalism to me… and it also sounds like wishful thinking.  In the real world, governments with lots of power and a vague mandate to “help people” reliably do great harm.  This is true in the U.S., and it’s true in Sweden.  Yes, the Swedes strangle their housing industry too.

Given all this, I predictably deny that “ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system.”  Full-blown socialist systems make social democracy look great by comparison.  Indeed, once you draw the distinction between social democracy and socialism, it’s very hard to find to find any socialist regime that isn’t a tragic, despotic disaster.  If Sweden is the jewel of social democracy, what’s the jewel of socialism?  Cuba?  Nor is there any sign that socialism somehow becomes “more necessary” as countries progress.  The main reason governments have gotten bigger over the last thirty years is just the aging of the population.

Finally, let me underscore what I’m not saying.  I’m not saying that life in the U.S. or Sweden is terrible.  In fact, human beings in both countries enjoy close to the highest quality of life than human beings have ever achieved.  My claim, rather, is that even the most successful countries in history could do far better.  I know that social democratic policies are emotionally appealing.  That’s why they’ve won.  Yet objectively speaking, market capitalism should have won because market capitalism offers much better results.

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Backlash: The Last Refuge of an Immigration Moderate

Moderately pro-immigration thinkers often worry about “backlash.”  Tyler Cowen’s the most energetic worrier, but Tim Kane said the same at my Cato book party.  Backlash is what you bring up when none of the popular complaints about immigration make sense to you.  Then you get meta and reflect, “Immigration does have one serious cost: it inspires bad arguments.  Such arguments could ultimately lead to bad policies.”

The strange thing about the backlash argument is that the mechanism is totally general: “If you push X too far, you will – rightly or wrongly – upset the opponents of X.  They could be so upset that you actually get less X.”  Yet backlash to immigration is virtually the only form of policy backlash that anyone fears.

Which leads to an obvious question: Where are the other backlashes?

There has been some discussion of #MeToo backlash.  Yet as far as I can tell, no one worries that #MeToo will ultimately increase sexual harassment.

There has been some talk of globalization backlash.  Yet again, who claims that pushing globalization too hard actually leads to less globalization?

What gives?  The simplest story is that backlash against immigration is vastly stronger than backlash to virtually everything else in the universe.  However, there’s no evidence for this extraordinary claim – and as far as I know, even the vocal proponents of the immigration backlash story have never made it.

Another possibility is that immigration is only the tip of the backlash iceberg.  Big backlashes are all over the political landscape; we’ll find a bunch as soon as we start looking.

Good luck with that!

The more plausible story, finally, is that (a) the case for radical immigration liberalization is intellectually solid, but (b) most thinkers dislike advocating anything radical.  Low-quality thinkers can escape this bind by casually embracing low-quality arguments.  Higher-quality thinkers, however, have to scrounge around for a meta-argument.  When you know the critics of immigration are wrong, you warn, “Immigration is making the critics of immigration angry – and they might do something bad.”

To which the obvious reply is, “How bad?  Worse than the enormous harms of the immigration restrictions already on the books?  Highly unlikely.”

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Open Borders: Think of the Children

I love to see kids reading Open Borders.  When my daughter was five, she read it over my shoulder as I wrote it – and I knew I was right to make it a graphic novel.  Since then, I’ve heard about dozens of kids enjoying the book.  When I advertise it and add #ThinkOfTheChildren, I’m not joking.  I really would like to put Open Borders in the hands of every kid on Earth.

The uncharitable explanation is that I want to brainwash ignorant children with absurd dogmas.  I predictably reject that explanation.  My story:

1. It is mainstream society that is guilty of “brainwashing” children in favor of immigration restrictions, with a steady mix of economic illiteracy, innumeracy, misanthropy, and status quo bias.

2. I, in contrast, calmly present a long list of well-crafted arguments, many of which are straightforward enough for bright, motivated children to understand.

3. Open Borders teaches many of the fundamental principles of economics en passant, including the causes of economic growth, the value of trade, and marginal productivity theory.  So I’m not just telling kids about one important topic; I’m giving them tools to analyze a broad range of issues.

4. I’m making social science fun, as it should be.

5. Could I persuade children of falsehoods if I tried?  Probably.  But I know I’ve done my homework, so why shouldn’t I share what I’ve learned?

6. My conjecture: (a) People who learn popular views as children tend to believe them for the rest of their lives – whether or not those views are true.  (b) People who learn unpopular falsehoods as children, in contrast, tend to abandon those views in adulthood.  (c) People who learn unpopular truths are quite likely to retain them later in life.

7. Upshot: If you think you have some unpopular truths to share, share them with the young.  If you’re right, you’ve plausibly saved them from being wrong for the rest of their lives.  If you’re wrong, they’ll probably figure it out and change their minds.

8. Learning about Open Borders when you’re young almost certainly isn’t as effective as learning a new language when you’re young, but let’s give it a shot!

 

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