Immigration Rights 15:45

What are the economic and moral cases for allowing more immigration? Do immigrant workers depress native wages? Do they sully native culture? Commit more crime? Use more welfare? Brennan applies the foregoing discussion of political philosophy to the case of immigration.

Further Reading
Michael A. Clemens, “Economics and Immigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?” in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Michael Huemer, “Is There a Right to Immigrate?” in Social Theory and Practice.

Robert J. Sampson, “Rethinking Crime and Immigration” in Contexts.

Kristin F. Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl, “Why Are Immigrants’ Incarceration Rates so Low? Evidence on Selective Immigration, Deterrence, and Deportation” for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Rachel M. Friedberg and Jennifer Hunt, “The Impact of Immigrants on Host Country Wages, Employment, and Growth” for the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Benjamin Powell, The Economics of Immigration: Market-Based Approaches, Social Science, and Public Policy

Brennan: So the Nobel Laureate economist and philosopher, Amartya Sen often warns we have to be weary of the tyranny of a particular idea.  That idea is that of the nation state.  We’re used to the world being chopped up into nation states and we just take that for granted.  But maybe we shouldn’t.  The world wasn’t always like that and maybe the world won’t be like that in the future.  In particular, we think about justice and how your life goes, it makes a big difference where you’re born.  A person of a particular level of talent born in Haiti versus the same level of talent and born in the United States, they have vastly different life expectancies and life experiences and what they can expect for income and so on, all because they’re born on one side of the border and not another.  

So is that okay?  Is it okay in particular to do what most nation states do which is to exclude foreigners from entering their nation state who want to come there for work or to buy a house or to do other kinds of things because that’s what most countries do.  Now a lot of people make the following argument:  Well of course obviously, it is like I’m not required to rent out my house to people I don’t want to so why should the government open borders and let people from other countries come in?  The problem with that is that a nation isn’t like a house.  It’s true that I don’t have to rent my spare bedroom to somebody from the Dominican Republic if I don’t want to.  But a nation is actually a collection of individuals, some of whom want to do that very thing.  So when this country decides to close borders, it’s not the country saying, “We’re not going to let some people in because we just don’t want to deal with them,” it’s some people in that country saying, “We’re going to forbid our friends and neighbors and fellow citizens from having economic interactions with these people.”  It’s more like the country’s saying, “You want to rent your house to someone from the Dominican Republic but we won’t let you.  You want to give a job to someone from Haiti but we won’t let you.  No.  We’re saying no.  You’re not allowed to do that.”  So it’s some people imposing their will upon others, it’s interfering with other people’s free transactions.  

Close borders if you think about it are really a form of economic protectionism.  They’re a form of economic protectionism.  In particular, they’re a type of import quota on labor.  And if you take an economics class, you learn that economic protectionism is destructive.  It creates what’s called deadweight loss which is the economic activity that would have taken place but it didn’t because of that protectionist policy.  In particular, so how bad are the deadweight losses from immigration restrictions?  Well economists using the standards method of trying to estimate this, and if you haven’t heard this number before, it’s staggering.  It appears that immigration restrictions are the most economically inefficient thing that government do.  Michael Clemens in a recent paper published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives did what’s called a review article.  Review articles are articles that doesn’t do its own research but rather cites all the research that’s been done on a particular topic.  And he looks at the mean estimates of deadweight loss that economists have come up with immigration restrictions.  Typically, the normal answer is about 100% of world product.  In other words, in a world of open borders, world product right now would be about 150 trillion dollars.  Because we restrict immigration, it’s only about 75 trillion dollars.  In effect, every year, we destroy an entire Earth’s worth of economic activity in production and wealth because we close borders.  So from an economic perspective, it seems like a huge terrible idea.  And one way to think about this is we’re talking about whether we should open or close borders, we have a number here.  Any complain a person has about open border should be a 75 trillion complain. If it’s less than that, we can say, “Well, it still is worth it.”  

Now that’s just the economic perspective.  What about the moral perspective?  Well the philosopher Michael Huemer says on its face it looks like close borders seem pretty evil.  To illustrate this, he has a thought experiment.  Suppose there’s a guy named Starvin’ Marvin.  Marvin is starving and he wants to get some food.  And even though he’s starving and not doing very well, he has something that he was able to trade.  Right now he’s heading towards the market in order to make a beneficial life saving trade with a willing participant at the market.  And right when he’s about to get to the market, you show up and put some guards in front of the market and say, “Go away, Marvin.  We don’t like people like you around here.”  So he goes back home and starves and dies.  Well it looks like it’s your fault he died.  It wasn’t your fault he was starving in the first place but it was your fault he ended up dying of starvation.  He was going to make a trade with a willing partner and you stopped him.  Now another version of this:  Marvin is no longer starving.  He’s just desperately poor.  He’s about to go to the market where he’ll make a transaction with somebody and his income will go by a factor of say 15.  He’ll go from being poor to being rich by world standards.  And the person there at the market wants Marvin to come.  But once again, you show up with your armed guards, you place them around the market and you turn Marvin away, and he goes back home where he remains poor.  Again, it wasn’t your fault that he was poor in the first place.  That’s just his bad luck or whatever but it is your fault that he died as poor because you prevented him from making a trade with a willing partner.  On its face, that’s what immigration restrictions look like.  It’s some people would like to trade with people from other parts of the world by giving them jobs, by letting them buy houses or rent their houses, by doing all kinds of things and other people are forbidding that from happening, and as a result, the world’s most desperate and most impoverished people remain poor and remain desperate.  So on its face, it looks really evil.  There’s got to be something that has to justify that.  Otherwise, we should dispense with it.  Is there any such justification?

It’s worth noting in this kind of Starvin’ Marvin example, you’re not simply failing to help Marvin but you’re actively hurting him.  So if you’re walking down the street and a homeless person asks you for five dollars and you say no and keep walking, you haven’t helped him but you haven’t made him any worse off either.  His welfare hasn’t gone down.  This is more like a situation in which you see a homeless person washing somebody’s windshield and you don’t like it when that happens so you wave your gun around and scare the homeless person off before he gets his five bucks.  That’s what you’re doing in this situation.  So what are the justifications people offer?  Why isn’t everyone in favor of open borders when it looks like they’re going to produce 75 trillion dollars of economic activity per year starting now,  and it looks like on the face of they’re just causing harm and killing people.  Well they have a number of arguments that people make, many of which are kind of consequentialists and dependent on the facts.  One argument is that if we allow immigrants in, they’re going to cause a lot of crime.  Another argument is that if we allow immigrants in, they’re going to lower our wages.  Another argument is that they will sully our culture and make it dysfunctional or worse.  Another argument is that they’ll consume our welfare services.  Now one thing to know about this is these arguments are already treating native born citizens and people elsewhere as different because no one would make the following argument:  I, being male, am statistically more likely to commit crime than the women in here.  Just the virtue of that, therefore we should kick me out.  But they do say that about immigrants.  No one would say, “Well if I move from here to say, I don’t know, Ann Arbor, Michigan, I’m bringing in new work so I might lower the wages to some degree so I shouldn’t be allowed to move.”  They wouldn’t say that.  They wouldn’t be in favor of kicking me out of the D.C. area in order to boost the wages in this area.  They wouldn’t say, “Well, this Brennan guy, he listens to all sorts of weird death metal and that sullies our culture so we better get rid of him and make him move to Sweden where they like that kind of thing.”  They wouldn’t say, “Well, this guy might consume welfare services.  We should kick him out of the country.”  

So are they good arguments though?  Well, it depends upon the facts.  And looks like all the facts are just wrong.  So one claim is that immigrants are more likely to commit crime and on its face, that seems pretty plausible because when you think about places that have a high density of immigrants, there are often high crime places.  But that doesn’t mean that the immigrants cause crime.  It could just be instead that immigrants tend to be poor, poor people tend to move to where it’s cheap, and places that are cheap to live tend to have high crime.  So one way to disambiguate that is to go out and check.  And in fact, economists and others have done that.  So the sociologist Robert Sampson did a study where he found that Mexican immigrants are only half as likely to commit crime as third generation or greater of Americans of any nationality.  So when you think about the stereotypical person American going, “I don’t like Mexicans.  They commit too much crime,” that guy is three times more likely to commit crime than the Mexican he’s complaining about.  Economists Kristin Butcher and Anne Piehl did another study of this and they found that immigrants are incarcerated only one-fifth the rate of native born people, and so on.  

And other studies have found similar effects.  It looks like immigrants are actually not more likely to commit crime.  And maybe it makes sense if you think about it because the types of people who are going to move are types that are chasing economic opportunity.  It’s not likely that there’s some pickpocket in Mexico City saying, “If I only had deeper pockets to pick, I’d make more money” so they move to the United States.  That kind of person probably isn’t motivated enough to do that.  It takes a lot of effort and work to move.  

What about wages?  Seems obvious that if we just allow people to move here who are not very highly skilled that they’ll depress native wages.  Maybe.  But another possibility is that they’re a resource and their work and efforts will be complementary to the kinds of work we have here.  So the question is when we have an influx of new immigrants, “Are they a substitute for preexisting labor in which case they will depress wages or are they a complement to preexisting wages, in which case they’ll increase it?”  Well again, the only way to know is to go and study this.  And when economists have studied it, they generally find that for the most part, immigrants are going to boost wages rather than make them go lower.  So Rachel Friedberg and Jennifer Hunt did another review article looking at all the research on this question.  The article’s called The Impact of Immigrants in Host Country Wages, Employment, and Growth in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.  And they find as many others have found that it looks like for most people in a country that’s allowing immigrants, they’re going to see their wages go up.  The one exception to this would be like in the United States men who have less than a high school diploma, unskilled labor with less than a high school diploma.  They’ll see their wages go down by a little bit but then only for a few years.  So most studies find that.  And the thought is if almost everyone’s going to have a big wage gain and only few people have a small wage loss, we can make everyone a winner.  We can just compensate them for their loss and everybody’s happy.  

What about culture?  Well here, I have to be a little bit more heavy-handed and maybe take a stance but if you think about it like where the places that are cultural centers let’s say the US or other countries, there are almost always places that are high immigration:  New York, LA, not the middle of nowhere North Dakota because new culture comes from old cultures mixing together, taking an idea here, an idea here, putting them together, and to create something new.  One way to illustrate this is to think about American music.  What is then the most American kind of music?  Country music, right?  Country music.  Well, the banjo, one of the key instruments used in country music is an African instrument.  Then many of the key harmonic progressions that are used in country music are African.  The guitar is Spanish and then through various parts of Persia and so on.  it’s not itself an English instrument per se.  So this thing that we think of as stereotypically American music is actually based on stuff that doesn’t come from even Europe.  It comes from elsewhere.  

What about welfare?  Well it’s true that you can’t afford to pay everybody the welfare benefits of the United States.  But the result of that, you just won’t.  We can’t afford to give everyone American style welfares so we won’t.  So we have a choice.  We can either have people be poor Haiti and not pay them welfare or they can be richer in the United States and not pay them welfare.  From a humanitarian perspective, this second choice is way better.  It’s like “Oh, I can’t afford to pay this person welfare so I have him be poor over there rather than rich over here.  It doesn’t seem like a very nice thing to do and doesn’t seem like a good justification.  Further, when people have this worry about all these immigrants will come in and just destroy the culture, what economists like say about this is think of national borders aren’t magic.  The argument if it’s a good argument shouldn’t just apply between national borders but should apply within countries.  It should be a reason not just for restricting immigration between say Mexico and the United States but restricting immigration between say Kentucky and Virginia, or between neighborhoods within Virginia.  So think of it this way.  I live in Fairfax County, Virginia which has one of the highest per capita incomes in the United States, well over 100,000 per household per year.  Most people have at least a bachelor’s degree.  The people that have bachelor’s degree have higher education in general.  The schools are great.  There’s very low crime, very low teen pregnancy.  It’s one of the most functional counties in the United States.  Now take say Harlan County, Kentucky.  Harlan County, Kentucky, their per capita income is like 20,000.  That’s really low.  It’s about a sixth of like the income in Fairfax.  Education rates are really low.  Crime rates are really high.  Drug use is really high.  Teen pregnancy rates are really high.  One thing to note about that is we, Fairfax County, has an open border with Harlan County.  All the people who are living there could just move to Fairfax County tomorrow but they don’t.  So whatever economic forces explain why we don’t have a flood of the rest of America that’s poor into Fairfax County, Virginia presumably explain what will happen with open borders between countries.  But these are good arguments.  If these are supposed to be good arguments for closing the borders between countries, they should be equally good arguments for closing the borders between states.  Virginia better not let Kentuckians move in, or closing borders between cities and towns like “Oh, Maclean, Virginia better not let anyone from outside move in because they’ll ruin the city” or closing neighborhoods as well like, “Oh, better not let anyone move to this particular street because they’ll ruin it.”  

So at the end of the day, it doesn’t look like any of these arguments really work.       

Question: Are there ever any legitimate reasons for closing borders say infectious diseases like Ebola or religious extremism?  Is there any reason that a country would sacrifice economic benefits for that?

Brennan: Yeah.  These are good concerns.  And again, I think you can look at pigeonhole solutions.  So let’s just use like a sort of extreme case.  Imagine literally everyone from some particular country is a terrorist who wants to blow up the United States.  Well, that isn’t good grounds for just closing borders entirely but rather grounds for having a mostly open borders regime but then not allowing people from that country to come in.  You come to the country, you’re allowed to move there but first you get a very quick background check to make sure you’re not from that particular country.  And most like if everyone in that country were a terrorist who wanted to just destroy Americans, they’d find a way around that anyways.  Same thing with disease; we have open borders within the United States among towns.  If there were a particular town that had an outbreak of some horrible disease, our response would be to kind of quarantine that town as best we can and to restrict movement for people from that town.  It wouldn’t be to shut down all movement within the United States.  So similarly, if we find that there’s a particular country that has an outbreak of some horrible disease, we would quarantine that particular country as much as possible but we don’t have any reason to shut down all interstate migration.  So you do sort of the least amount possible to get rid of the problem rather than just closing borders entirely which is close to what we do.

Topics Philosophy