Question time – open borders
May 16, 2014, 9:43 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This time it was Bryan Caplan’s turn to play Smart Person by asking Mark Krikorian some Questions. Do you want to know my answers to those questions? Well regardless (and despite the redundancy, since my answers are broadly similar to Krikorian’s) here they are:

How much would open borders have to raise living standards before you’d reconsider? Doubling GDP clearly doesn’t impress you. What about tripling? A ten-fold increase?

No one can prove, even in principle, a proposition such as ‘open borders will raise living standards by X’ as a sort of Law Of Physics, so let’s take that off the table right now; if that’s the premise of the question I reject it outright. Also, merely ‘raising living standards’ is too aggregate and vague for my taste; whose living standards? I reserve the right to care about micro details of what happens, not merely macro or on average. Finally, ‘living standards’ isn’t even the only relevant metric.

In the end we all form a view regarding what the likely effects of open borders – or any other nontrivial policy – would be, based on knowledge and data but also based on our economic and other intuition, our priors, our experience, and so forth. We then measure that against our preferences. Viewed in this light Caplan is essentially asking ‘if you thought open borders would be beneficial would you think open borders beneficial?’ Sure! But in the event, evidently, taking everything into account, I don’t find open borders to be desirable. If I did, then I would, but I don’t, so I don’t. Sorry, what is Caplan even asking?

Suppose the U.S. had a lot more patriotic solidarity. In what specific ways would it be better to live here?

There would, I have to think, be more good fellow-feeling amongst the people one encounters day to day. There would be less insularity and distrust. That’d be pleasant, I think.

I also venture that there would be less of the cheating, angling, trickery, corruption, rent-seeking, etc etc that IMHO is pervasive in modern life. I mean, if there really is a lot more solidarity. Right? We hear a lot about ‘high-trust societies’ (and they are usually quite homogeneous). Although it isn’t mentioned as much, this presumably goes hand in hand with high-trustworthiness societies. It is not the dumbest thing in the world to think that ‘patriotic solidarity’ would nudge things in that direction, and that that would be nice.

Aren’t there any practical ways you could unilaterally adopt to realize their benefits? Are you using them?

Krikorian didn’t understand this question but I do; Caplan links to his ‘bubble’ post. So I interpret him to be asking this: whatever good effects I think might stem from ‘patriotic solidarity’, can’t I just ‘unilaterally’ create them on my own?

I think the answer is a resounding no. I can’t ‘unilaterally’ make other people act more pleasantly. I can’t ‘unilaterally’ get others to stop trying to rip me off. I could metaphorically (or literally) build a moat and fortress around myself and mine in various ways – and people do – but that’s very expensive (so I perceive it as a cost/tax), and doesn’t really achieve the state of ‘patriotic solidarity’ anyway.

These are weird questions. Suffice to say that ‘patriotic solidarity’ as such isn’t my main reason for being an immigration-trimmer, but I guess there was a context for Caplan raising these points. In any event, they aren’t good ones.

Do you really think low-immigration parts of the U.S. are nicer places to live? If so, why aren’t more natives going there? Why don’t you?

Some are some aren’t. It’s not a single-dimensional issue. It’s also not a simple matter of evaluating or going to ‘places’ that are ‘low-immigration’ in some aggregate sense.

In fact, I would say that generally natives do try to go where immigrants aren’t, whether or not they live in a place that is ‘low-immigration’ overall. Ever hear of ‘white flight’? I presume Caplan is thinking of places with a lot of immigrants somewhere kinda nearby – you know, so that they can commute in to be ‘workers’ to aid him and his in his daily life – but that’s not quite the same thing.

New York for example may have a lot of immigrants but fancy rich people will pay up to live cloistered away from them – even if that only means a couple dozen blocks away. Or look at a racial map of the DC metro area sometime; it’s a pie chart. Both of those places are ‘high immigration’ but the natives are expressing clear revealed-preferences regarding proximity to immigrants (among other groups), and no, Bryan, that revealed preference is clearly not indifference.

Doesn’t patriotic solidarity often lead people to unify around bad ideas? Think about the Vietnam War or Iraq War II. If so, why are you so confident that we need more patriotic solidarity rather than less?

I guess a thing can lead to unifying around bad ideas sure. I have quibbles with the examples he gives but it’s not worth going into. Again, I am not a non-open-borderser primarily because of a desire to engineer an increase in ‘patriotic solidarity’ so the question doesn’t really apply to me.

I’m sincerely puzzled. How exactly is discriminating against blacks worse than discriminating against foreigners?

Krikorian’s answer is fine.

Suppose you were debating a white nationalist who said, “I agree completely with [you], except I value racial solidarity rather than patriotic solidarity.” What would you say to change his mind? Would you consider him evil if he didn’t?

I’m not sure why I’d be ‘debating’ with him. I don’t really care what he thinks. Why do I have to ‘change his mind’? Maybe I’d just walk away. Or if I stayed, maybe I’d be listening to his thoughts out of sheer curiosity without feeling any sort of obligation or pressure to ‘debate’ them.

If I were really heart-set on changing his mind, I guess I’d make the argument to him that pitching (white, Caplan presumably means) ‘racial solidarity’ is a loser’s game and a lost cause and not really even likely to achieve whatever goals he has. What does this have to do with anything? The idea is that non-open borders is equivalent to white supremacy? Sorry, it’s just that it can be hard to follow when an open-borderers goes Full Lefty like this.

Suppose you can either save one American or x foreigners. How big does x have to be before you save the foreigners?

There’s no mathematical critical-threshold x that I could define and state here and it would be stupid if someone did state such a thing. Like a human, I’d take this sort of thing on a case by case basis.

In what sense is letting an American employer hire a foreigner is an act of charity?

It’s not. As I’ve stated many times,

(a) I’d ‘let’ American employers hire foreigners or anyone else, I don’t care; and
(b) doing that by itself does not ‘open the borders’ so it’s silly to include it in an open-borders pitch.

I know I keep saying that over and over, which is a little silly in its own right and accomplishes little besides scaring readers away, but I promise it’s only because Bryan Caplan doesn’t understand it yet. He literally doesn’t understand the substantive difference in what is taking place between letting an employer hire someone and letting a guy cross the border. I’ve pointed it out to him. He’s read the words where I pointed it out to him. And they didn’t register, because he’s ‘not a lawyer’.

Suppose the U.S. decided to increase patriotic solidarity by refusing to admit Americans’ foreign spouses: “Americans should marry other Americans.” Would that be wrong?

If that were the policy beforehand and it were known by all then there really wouldn’t be a lot of situations involving someone getting married (elsewhere, it would have to be, logically speaking) and then trying to bring their spouse to America only to have America ‘refuse to admit’ them. Instead the status quo legal situation would be that marrying someone in a foreign country wouldn’t confer on that person the automatic right to immigrate to America. Everyone would know that. And thus they probably wouldn’t court or get married to foreigners, or if they did, they’d do so with no expectation of being able to return to America with their spouse, rather, they’d do so with the intent to stay in the country in question.

That may or may not be a wise or desirable outcome but I have a hard time seeing such a counterfactual as some kind of grave ‘wrong’ to get all worked up over. It seems like a highly relevant question only because, as I promise you I am fully aware, Americans marrying foreign spouses happens a not-insignificant amount of time, but if the legal landscape were as Caplan posits then I guess it wouldn’t be so much, so it kinda wouldn’t come up. *shrug*

This is a good example though because it illustrates that whether to allow this or that person to immigrate is nothing but a practical question on which there can be reasonable disagreement, discussion, etc. ‘Rights’ do not belong in the discussion and you will search for them in vain in my above answer to his question. That’s because it would be ridiculous to insist that a foreign person upon saying ‘I do’ to an American suddenly and magically gained the natural inalienable human ‘right’ to resettle within the United States. That’s not how it works and it’s not on the table. It’s a thing we decide, just as with all immigration allowances.

This has been another…QUESTION TIME

6 Comments so far
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“How much would open borders have to raise living standards before you’d reconsider? Doubling GDP clearly doesn’t impress you. What about tripling? A ten-fold increase?”

Doubling GDP when you’ve increased population by a factor of 10 means you’ve lowered standards of living. This is even granting his premise – that GDP is a non-terrible way to measure well being.

Comment by Steve Johnson

As a side note – what kind of lunatic economist decides that the most important thing to spend all his time discussing is an issue of right and wrong?

Clearly Caplan doesn’t care if immigration is beneficial – he’d actually use the tools of his profession to analyze the question if that was the case and he avoids doing that at all costs.

“Would that be wrong?… In what sense is letting an American employer hire a foreigner is an act of charity? … Suppose you can either save one American or x foreigners. … Would you consider him evil if he didn’t? … How exactly is discriminating against blacks worse than discriminating against foreigners? … Doesn’t patriotic solidarity often lead people to unify around bad ideas? ” etc.

Why doesn’t he resign his economics professorship and see if he can get tenure as philosopher of ethics (who has the most simplistic ethical framework imaginable)?

Comment by Steve Johnson

Getting down to brass tacks, we see the ideology come through here:

There is fundamental disagreement, Atkinson observed, over the purpose of labor force policy. “What is the major goal,” he asked, “equity and opportunity [for STEM workers], or innovation and growth” for the economy? Clearly favoring the latter, he stated that higher wages for STEM workers “are not progressive” because lower STEM wages would permit low-income Americans to pay less for products.

This guy wants to replace US STEM workers with foriegners, because it clearly improves the Big Calculation of Growth. Plus, it’s progressive (ie Communist)

My theory is that STEM workers in particular are targeted for this because they have the least political power in Washington, DC. They also tend to be the most conservative professional class. How many cries for foreign real estate agents have you heard? Or foreign lawyers? Or foreign prestige content writers?

Comment by Dave

Meanwhile, the big push in American education (even down, ridiculously, to the elementary school level) is ‘STEM’.

If you step back and consider the whole situation, there’s something more than a bit perverse in flinging gigantic student-loans at everyone and funneling people into ‘STEM’ because We All Agree that’s where the jobs are, only to tell them once they get out with $50 or $100k+ of debt that ‘STEM’ wages are too high and need to be kept down by importing immigrants to do them.

But I guess iPhones and Netflix will be $1 cheaper or something so.

Comment by Crimsonic

Yes it is very perverse. Also it makes Mark Zuckerberg look like a gigantic asshole.

“I got rich off of a website that was lucky enough to be a fad at the right time. I want to pay my employees less. Please allow millions of STEM workers to cross the border so i can hire them instead of my current workforce.”

Meanwhile back in reality world, did you know that the US lost 35,000 electrical engineering jobs last year?

That sounds exactly like the kind of high wage high growth industry which would be helped by allowing millions of foreigners to cross our borders and join.

Who knows? If we get enough foreign engineers maybe they will pay you to subscribe to Netflix?

Comment by Dave

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Question time – open borders | RWCG

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