Bryan Caplan on Immigration
Oct 4 2010

Bryan Caplan of George Mason University and EconLog blogger talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about immigration. Caplan takes on the common arguments against open borders and argues that they are either exaggerated or can be overcome while still allowing more immigration than is currently allowed in the United States.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Oct 4 2010 at 10:45am

Illegal immigrants want to come to the US because they perceive that their lives would be better off here. Maybe the immigrants would stay in their home countries if the economic life was better there. If the US wants to stop illegal immigration, what can the US do to help improve economic life in the home countries of the immigrants?

Oct 4 2010 at 11:52am

I have just started to listen to this podcast, but I had to stop and comment.

The idea that the US government stopping US citizens from re-entering the United States is somehow equal to not allowing non-US citizens to enter the US is ridiculous. That is like saying that being prevented from entering your own home is somehow equal to not being allowed to enter a stranger’s home.

I don’t have the right to enter my neighbor’s home without permission, and non-citizens do not have the right to enter this country without permission.

Oct 4 2010 at 12:24pm

So, the fact that diversity lowers trust is a good thing, because it would lower support for the welfare state? That’s seeing the glass half full. If the unease is sufficient to have this tangential effect on welfare, I imagine that’s lowering people’s utility be a good deal.

My suburb’s school priorities are shaped by the ‘achievement gap’, which is primarily the poor educational performance of the new immigrant Somalis. I wish our priorities were how to teach math better, and I wish our teachers were not distracted by discipline problems that are 10-fold greater for the immigrant children.

Most of crime in my city centers in the immigrant neighborhood clusters, contra Bryan.

A lot of Bryan’s argument assumes various libertarian policies would also be enacted so redistribution would not occur, the classic can opener assumption.

John the Libertarian
Oct 4 2010 at 12:57pm

A very interesting discussion – thanks for having this podcast – for a libertarian the issue of immigration usually isn’t a very sticky one, unless we’re discussing illegal immigrants. That was the only problem I had with today’s discussion – except for the issue about taking more out of the system than putting in the system – there wasn’t much discussion regarding the illegal immigrant (and I guess, by mere numbers that would be predominately Mexicans). I would have loved to see how the data, facts, and figures discussed today would have differed if the figures had been segregated by legal immigrants vs. illegal immigrants. (perhaps the data wouldn’t have been much different, but if that’s the case, that information would be of interest to most)

Most of the discussion around immigration today doesn’t involve the issue of legal immigration, I would believe that most Americans have no problem with legal immigration – the real issue is of illegal immigration. Perhaps you can have Mr. Caplan back on and discuss the specific issue of illegal immigration. That would get to the heart of the real debate that is going on in society today. You only touched on it a bit in today’s podcast.

I personally have no problem with immigrants (either legal or illegal) and have hired them to do work on property that I own (don’t know if they are legal or illegal as I don’t check and won’t check – I pay by cash).

Having grown up in Southern California and living there for most of my life, I have a respect for those who come up here from Mexico to actually work. I would gladly trade one of our cardboard sign freeway onramp homeless bums for 10 illegal aliens who come here to work (and by the way – these illegal aliens also have a fantastic work ethic). In all of my years of living in Southern California I don’t recall seeing any Hispanic folks standing on the freeway on-ramps asking for handouts. Those of your listeners who live in Southern California can attest to that – but I do see a lot of Hispanics on street corners selling candy, fruit, flowers or standing in the parking lots of home depot to be offered work from those who need odd jobs performed. They are asking for work, but never asking for a handout. As a libertarian and a free market capitalist – I love to see that. Our country would be a much better place if more of our high-school dropouts had a great work ethic (but then most wouldn’t have dropped out of high school if they did). You can always educate someone who is unschooled (a lot of illegals fit that criteria), but it’s not very easy to instill a good work ethic in someone who doesn’t have one.

Oct 4 2010 at 1:43pm


I think Dr. Caplan chose that example to highlight precisely that point: that neither you, nor the U.S. state “owns” America in the same way that you own your house. Restrictions on immigration are not like you restricting entry to your own property, but more like your neighbor telling you who can and can’t do business with.

Oct 4 2010 at 1:53pm

I’m only as far as the main arguments presented…

Personally, I would like open, concise and clear immigration policies, as well as a variety of policies at a level much lower than the national level.

That said, I wanted to add an argument against changing immigration policies at the ‘national’ level which is what seems to be the core suggestion of the video. Mainly, the argument of ‘unintended consequences’.

If we are against centralized national planning, how is it we have the ability to ‘plan’ for the unintended consequences of changing immigration policies at this scale?


Oct 4 2010 at 2:44pm

Why this entire economic discussion on immigration is obviously bunk:

Everything has positives and negatives.

Any situation analyzed for pro’s and cons, will come up with items in both columns.

They could not, for the life of them, come up with a single con to open borders.

This is all the evidence you need to know this was not a balanced discussion.

(In all honesty, im only 30 min in. But I would be willing bet a bucket of nickels they dont identify a single negative.)

Oct 4 2010 at 4:19pm

Just to head off a lot of comments about how everyone should immigrate legally, here is a flowchart that illustrates the frustration of the legal process : [Reason Foundation, link is clean]

Not as easy as landing at Ellis Island, is it ?

Oct 4 2010 at 4:36pm

No conversation on immigration can be complete without the participants first watching the video in the link provided – Immigration gumballs on YouTube:
The video offers evidence that refutes the idea of more open borders potentially allowing larger numbers of immigrants being a solution to the immigration problem we face as a nation (which is precisely what the guest’s position was). It also addresses the cost of immigration and the possible effects on our economy – so it related directly to the discussion.

We simply cannot allow the masses into America because it’s mathmatically impossible. Not only can we not afford or support it, but it just doesn’t make sense.

The best chance for a better life for the hundreds of millions of people who want a better life is to improve the individual rights and economies of their home countries. Trying to bring the best here will not help most Americans and will actually make their home country worse as we suck the hardest workers and best minds out of the countries that need them most.

Sadly, here in America we are trying so hard to destroy the goose that lays golden eggs (economy supported by individual rights, exclusion of government from real free markets) to “help” those who can’t or won’t take care of themselves. The more we try to “help” people the more will “need” help and the worse things will get, with the end game being the system crashes and the goose dies.

[Comment edited to include two sentences from email. The speaker in the video is Roy Beck, Executive Director of NumbersUSA.–Econlib Ed.]

John Scott
Oct 4 2010 at 5:21pm

Current thought is that a law prohibiting non-citizen residents from drawing welfare benefits is unconstitutional. Every time a state prohibits non-citizen residents from drawing a benefit the court strikes it down based on the equal protection clause. So it would take a constitutional amendment to pass Caplan’s provision. I think that the court’s interpretation in this instance is raw judicial activism, but such is life.

For my part, I am in favor of free immigration subject to background and medical checks. Perhaps if we privatized background checks with appropriate incentives for companies doing them, we could take the waiting period down to a few days.

Oct 4 2010 at 5:32pm

“but I do see a lot of Hispanics on street corners selling candy, fruit, flowers or standing in the parking lots of home depot to be offered work from those who need odd jobs performed. They are asking for work, but never asking for a handout.”

Well said John.

I wrestle with topics like this to come to an educated opinion, and usually come to realize it takes a core philosophy such as “liberty/freedom” to set the foudation for how you interpret good economic/political/immigration policy. One must put aside from his mind systemic consequences one opposes for a time and allow for this greater “virtue” whatever it be to rain supreme for the ultimate outcome one desires.

Lol. Dont know if this last sentence makes sense.

Oct 4 2010 at 7:14pm

One must put aside from his mind systemic consequences one opposes for a time and allow for this greater “virtue” whatever it be to rain supreme for the ultimate outcome one desires.

How do we decide which systemic consequences we put aside and which we do not? How do we decide which greater virtues we allow to reign supreme and which we do not?

What if a person’s favorite virtue wasn’t ‘freedom’ but ‘altruism’? What if they didn’t care what the systemic consequences of altruism were, and just trusted in it, saying, for example, ‘Don’t beehives benefit from the suicidal nature of those that protect the group?’

How do we choose ‘freedom’ over all of the other competing virtues? And, how is it, we don’t allow others to use that same method to choose their ‘one virtue to rule them all’….


Oct 4 2010 at 11:54pm

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring this comment and your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconTalk.–Econlib Ed.]

Oct 4 2010 at 11:58pm

Lots to correct here; may do several comments throughout the week.

1. The claim that there is a presumption against immigration restrictions, and that these fail if no good reason can be given, will sink a society. Did the pacified Romans have proof that the Germanic tribes would overrun them and level their civilization, rather than just be a few bad apples or even nice guys? No, something just smelled bad. Same with not letting in a boatload of people from a land with the Black Plague — do you have proof that they are infected? If not, then let them in.

The Plague example shows how cautious we need to be — it was the fleas on the rats carried by the people on the ships that were the vector of disease. Even quarantining the people would’ve done nothing — it was the rats. But no one suspected that at the time, let alone have proof.

The true presumption is that we shouldn’t radically alter the genetic and cultural make-up of our society — go with what’s worked before. We have proof that that’s worked, while we have no proof that radical changes will work. Key word is “radical.”

2. The wage question seems the least important, so I’m willing to concede that the effect on native low-skilled wages might not be “that” big — 5-10% is still not chump change, though, especially when you’re at the bottom. I read and hear plenty of immigration restriction people, and this comes up the least.

3. Any financial gain is of dubious boost to utility at our stage of development. We’re not in pre-modern England anymore. Just about everyone would be perfectly happy if we froze our standard-of-living during the 1980s, plus some immigration-irrelevant time for internet access, PCs, and cell phones to become cheaper (all were already invented and commercially available).

Oct 5 2010 at 12:19am

Here begins a series of confusions that only look at the immigrants themselves and not projecting costs and benefits into the future. That’s what opponents of open borders claim — that our children’s and grandchildren’s generations will be overtaxed to pay for this or sending their kids to schools away from dollar-a-day descendants.

4. Would Bryan argue that throughout the next 5 to 10 generations (probably starting by the 2nd or 3rd), the descendants of low-skilled Haitians or Chiapas Mexicans will pay more in taxes than they receive at the federal level? Will they and their descendants never grow old? We know from their citizen counterparts that they will be more likely to go on welfare, get Medicaid, get free education, subsidized / “affordable” housing — alarms bells should be sounding now — and so on. So they will further burden the tax system, if not right away then very soon enough.

Here is a review of a book by liberal sociologist / Chicano studies pair, Generations of Exclusion, which documents how Mexicans in the southwestern US still vastly underperform even through the fourth generation after immigration:

Generations of Exclusion

A similar case study could be (perhaps has been) done for Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in New York, who’ve lived there forever yet have not achieved native levels of social outcomes, and have not assimilated other than linguistically.

5. Black Swan events have no predecessors, so crudely relying on previous eras of fairly open immigration tells us little about today, just like the current financial meltdown has little to do with the Great Depression or any other catastrophe.

6. Nevertheless, we can learn in retrospect why previous open-door policies didn’t sink our society: as you mentioned, those people had a different genetic and cultural make-up. You can look up average IQs by nation and see that Europe and northeast Asia wasn’t a bad place to take immigrants from. Haiti, sub-Saharan Africa, Amerindians (except Peruvians, who are only a tad below Europeans), etc., make for entirely different forecasts.

Also, most dollar-a-day populations have little history of civilization, therefore are not well adapted to it genetically and culturally. One glaring example is eating a carb-centric diet like Americans do. This causes Metabolic Syndrome, which previous guests Art De Vany and Nassim Taleb have detailed, but it is even worse for Africans and Amerindians, who adopted agriculture only recently or not at all in some cases. Incredibly low levels of social trust are another example.

Oct 5 2010 at 12:21am

Here begins a series of confusions that only look at the immigrants themselves and not projecting costs and benefits into the future. That’s what opponents of open borders claim — that our children’s and grandchildren’s generations will be overtaxed to pay for this or sending their kids to schools away from dollar-a-day descendants.

4. Would Bryan argue that throughout the next 5 to 10 generations (probably starting by the 2nd or 3rd), the descendants of low-skilled Haitians or Chiapas Mexicans will pay more in taxes than they receive at the federal level? Will they and their descendants never grow old? We know from their citizen counterparts that they will be more likely to go on welfare, get Medicaid, get free education, subsidized / “affordable” housing — alarms bells should be sounding now — and so on. So they will further burden the tax system, if not right away then very soon enough.

A liberal sociologist / Chicano studies pair wrote a book, Generations of Exclusion, which documents how Mexicans in the southwestern US still vastly underperform even through the fourth generation after immigration. A similar case study could be (perhaps has been) done for Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in New York, who’ve lived there forever yet have not achieved native levels of social outcomes, and have not assimilated other than linguistically.

Oct 5 2010 at 12:32am

5. Black Swan events have no predecessors, so crudely relying on previous eras of fairly open immigration tells us little about today, just like the current financial meltdown has little to do with the Great Depression or any other catastrophe.

6. Nevertheless, we can learn in retrospect why previous open-door policies didn’t sink our society: as you mentioned, those people had a different genetic and cultural make-up. You can look up average intelligence scores by nation and see that Europe and northeast Asia wasn’t a bad place to take immigrants from. Haiti, sub-Saharan Africa, Amerindians (except Peruvians, who are only a tad below Europeans), etc., make for entirely different forecasts.

Also, most dollar-a-day populations have little history of civilization, therefore are not well adapted to it genetically and culturally. One glaring example is eating a carb-centric diet like Americans do. This causes Metabolic Syndrome, which previous guests Art De Vany and Nassim Taleb have detailed, but it is even worse for Africans and Amerindians, who adopted agriculture only recently or not at all in some cases. Incredibly low levels of social trust are another example.

Oct 5 2010 at 12:35am

7. I’ve made this point at least three times at EconLog to Bryan’s posts, but he still cannot accept what his own Myth of the Rational Voter logic compels him to believe about the connection between more low-skilled immigration and a more illiberal polity. He paints the worry as a standard public choice “special interests” story — that immigrants or their descendants will vote for a more illiberal polity because that would benefit them, as it surely would. Even if we kept them from voting, the same illiberal policies would emerge. How?

Ask Bryan: illiberal policies come from those who do not benefit but want to help out the less fortunate. Men vote for abortion rights, people of all ages support social security, the healthy and already insured demand universal health coverage, the educated want everyone else to have free schools and higher ed as well, etc. If you disenfranchised the elderly back in the 1930s, would social security have never happened? If you did so now, would it evaporate soon enough? No, because the main support is from the majority of people who aren’t that unfortunate but want them to be protected.

That is what the median citizen will support for immigrants — that they too should have free health care, free schools, free housing, free broadband access, or whatever else comes down the pike. Important to remember that last point — there’s lots of the welfare state of 2050 that we can’t even see or imagine right now. And the citizens will vote for affirmative action programs, “disparate impact” laws, and so on, just as they have for the past several decades.

The notion that more immigration from Mexico will erode the welfare state is clearly negated by the recent housing bubble. The rhetoric used to bash down standards was that they were prejudicial against Africans and Hispanics. Same goes for the still-going higher ed bubble. We may not dole out cash like the Swedes do, but we make up for that by indirect hand-outs that seek to “redress the injustices of the past” or whatever.

Oct 5 2010 at 12:43am

8. For crime, see point 4 above that the main cause of concern is the effect throughout the near and medium term, not right this moment. No one is worried that much about current illegal immigrants since everyone suspects that they’re ultra-cautious, lest they get caught and sent back.

What happens once their numbers begin to rise over time? We get generations that aren’t afraid of being sent back home. Crime data clearly show that Africans and non-white Hispanics commit crime at higher rates than whites or northeast Asians, so within a few generations, we will certainly get more crime than if they were not here.

As a quick reality check for the DC metro area where you guys are, look at the rapid rise of the brutal MS-13 gang there (and other less famous ones). It started in the early 1980s in Los Angeles among Central American immigrants, but now is entrenched in the DC suburbs and their schools.

Oct 5 2010 at 12:57am

To wrap this up and get practical, let’s look at why the “more humane solutions” idea would not work. Fundamentally, the median American — or anyone — cannot be of two minds. Some libertarians might, but for everyone else, the mindset will either be “let them in and don’t pester or threaten them with fines or deportations or no voting rights” or “keep them out in the first place.”

An au pair here or there, OK, people are fine with that. But importing millions, maybe a billion, dollar-a-day people is a much larger decision. We’re not going to let in 100 million people but then not let them vote, threaten them with deportation if they slip up, etc. We either accept them with open arms or not at all. You may not like that reality, but that’s how most citizens behave. So few or none of those proposals are realistic, even if they make logical sense to a libertarian.

Finally, a lot of the costs to our society cannot be forecast at all, let alone accurately estimated. Again look at letting Germanic tribes into Rome or boat people from central Asia or the eastern Mediterranean into Italy during the Black Plague. Look at the whole affirmative action / disparate impact machinery of the current legal system — who could’ve forecast that in 1850 or 1900?

Because these costs cannot be estimated, there’s no way to come up with a meaningful entry fee ex ante or a fine ex post (because the full costs into the future cannot be estimated, even if the immediate ones can be). And the way government works, once a greater welfare state gets going, it keeps on going. There will be little or no way to scale it back, just like we haven’t made any efforts to eliminate social security over the decades. Once a wave of dollar-a-day immigration leads to a new form of the welfare state, it’ll be there to stay and we can’t simply undo it or fine the offenders.

This is the wisdom behind the conservationist stance — it only appears “overly” cautious while it’s not paying off, but when it averts another set of tentacles of the welfare state from sprouting out, it more than pays for itself. The lending and mortgage standards of the past 50 or so years looked too cautious and were keeping lots of poor blacks and Hispanics from owning homes — but as we saw very clearly, those conservationist standards were anything but overly cautious, and the radical change in the make-up of people who got loans nearly sunk the global economy.

Oct 5 2010 at 1:47am

How do we decide which systemic consequences we put aside and which we do not? How do we decide which greater virtues we allow to reign supreme and which we do not?

I haven’t a clue Prior_Analytics.

As for me, I believe they lie in the bible, but am still yet to figure which truths rain supreme amongst its vast truth. Ultimately, my hope lies not in this world but that which is to come, as Christ has the answer as He is Truth.

pass for white and flightless
Oct 5 2010 at 5:28am

In a suburban area with detached housing, it’s a lot easier to dismiss irritation brought by some non-English speakers (38:10 of the podcast is what got my goat). Common property is a challenge, but without the means to mediate its use, it can be abused.

In my unit block and surrounding area, not speaking English is usually the first gambit played to avoid engaging in any kind of unpleasant discussion.

An example which is more funny than anything else: a guy from across the road comes over here to hang his washing on the lines in our back garden. He has nothing to do with this property. I have been unsuccessful in gently communicating the fact that this is not the done thing. Illegal parkers use the same technique. Discarded furniture is just left at the front of the building despite free ways of having council remove it.

These little complaints are minor in the scheme of things, but it is a close to hand reality, so I didn’t have to go through too much head-scratching.

I accept that infelicity with the local language does not explain everything (we have bilingual/iconographic signs and information packets about rubbish in particular). So perhaps my neighbours were selected as good candidates specifically for their highly developed bloody mindedness.

Shorter version: Don’t share space and you are free to love everybody for their quirky and interesting habits.

pass for white and flightless
Oct 5 2010 at 5:36am

@agnostic my experience of the offspring of immigrants is wildly positive (I am one, as is my wife and most of my pals).

I think mixed schooling is really important in that.

My problem may just be that I am downwardly mobile, and living in a “welcome to Australia” suburb.

Oct 5 2010 at 7:51am

The purpose of his “stuck in Haiti” thought experiment is to suggest: “Doesn’t the concept of citizenship-based entry just feel wrong?” Well it doesn’t feel wrong to me. I’m an American living in Thailand (Japan before that), and I submit to their very strict immigration laws. I don’t have a Creator-endowed right to waltz into whatever territory I want. (of course, I do have a right to LEAVE any territory. North Korea is wrong to trap innocent citizens inside it’s borders like prisoners.) Whether I walk up to the Pentagon or up to the gates of Laos, when they turn me away, they are saying “You don’t belong here”, and they’re right! If they want to let me in as a guest (or even to let me become one of them), that’s their prerogative. The concept of citizenship still feels right to me.

As for the language concern, don’t be so dismissive, Mr. Caplan! Go to Miami, or at least read this article MSNBC – In Miami, Spanish Becoming Primary Language. There is such a thing as critical mass. When that critical mass is reached, market forces have the OPPOSITE effect and compel the city to adapt to Spanish-only-speakers rather than vice versa.

Think of immigration as digestion. With a healthy moderate intake of immigrants, our culture can digest and incorporate the good (humus, curry, origami) and expel the bad (jihad, caste system, harakiri). If we gorge ourselves on a sudden glut of immigrants, we get indigestion: populations that live within the borders but don’t become part of America, like food that just sits heavy in our stomach without becoming part of us.

Interesting interview with lots of good ideas, but he didn’t bring me over to his side because the bridge he was building was too rickety.

Oct 5 2010 at 8:03am

When it comes to the maintenance of liberty I think immigrants tend to be far more pro-liberty than Americans since they have experience countries that have far less liberty first hand.

Second, anyone who is brave enough to leave what and who they know to travel hundreds of miles to a place they do not know is someone we want to have in our country. People willing to take such a risk are inherently awesome. It is no wonder that we see many companies started by immigrants. After taking the risk of traveling half way across the world to start anew then the risks of starting a new company must seem pale in comparison.

Also there are foreign policy benefits to the US that was not mentioned at all. A large amount of immigration from a country gives us the leverage of shame. It makes them look bad to have their citizen fleeing and gives them an incentive to make actual improvements. Importing new Americans helps to export liberty abroad.

Oct 5 2010 at 1:29pm

Interesting discussion. I agree with many who wish the line between legal/illegal had been drawn better. One thing I found rather offensive, however, was the dismissal of the concept of immigration upsetting the ‘culture’ of America. It was rather snobbish that Caplan seemed to think that middle-America lacked culture, that many would rather live in NYC, and that immigration does not upset this balance. Go live on a ranch in Wyoming, you’ll find culture but no operas. Come watch my boys play every day in my flat, half-acre back yard in NC; you could hardly pay me enough to live in NYC. And in 10-20 years ask yourself if France is still the same when it becomes >50% muslim. I had a British woman tell me that Indian food is the new national food in the UK. Immigration adds to culture, but I think for the US’s sake that it needs to be slow enough for the immigrants to assimilate and add to the culture/politics, rather than import and overtake as can happen in places.

Mark Crankshaw
Oct 5 2010 at 1:43pm

I’ve recently enjoyed Professor Caplan’s audio lectures at the Foundation of Economic Education (FEE)–“Myth of the Rational Voter”, “The Case Against Education”, “Public Opinion for Libertarians”. I was pleasantly surprised that my sole objection to immigration was addressed by Professors Roberts and Caplan, namely, that a large influx of immigrants who hail from less liberal societies than our own may, in the long term, negatively alter the nature of US culture, politics, and society.

While I felt a little better that there at least exists arguments that counters the my dark fear that the future of this country will not be a pleasant one, my feeling of foreboding remains. In part, this feeling of foreboding results from the findings of Mr. Caplan in the audio lectures listed above: the native population of this country isn’t exactly naturally brimming with libertarian impulses, sophisticated economic and political insights, and resistence to rank demogogic manipulation. A frighteningly large percentage of native-born Americans have decidedly illiberal economic and political views and are quite willing to dispatch the liberty of others given even the slightest pretext for doing so.

Additionally, there is a very powerful and deeply entrenched political elite who seems to be chomping on the bit to take advantage of the situation.

My concern about having a larger percentage of immigrants from places such as Mexico is not that they will be different from the “average” American so much as they will find an allegiance with the rather large segment of the native-born population who are already hell-bent on destroying this place. People systematized to the antics of the PRI for a century may take for granted that the State must be corrupt, gargantuan, re-distributive and exploitative. They may easily form an alliance with the herd of native Statists, attempt to promote a Statist who looks and speaks like them, and the next thing you know we’ll have our very own Hugo Chavez. And when the chants of “Si!Podemos!” echo through the air we may live to see what little freedom remains, our tattered vestiges of free market liberty, and any hope of living in a more libertarian world evaporate right before our eyes.

Far from believing that everything in America is going well and that immigrants might alter things all by themselves–I see an America that is way off track and dangerously drifting towards a less free and prosperous future exclusively because of the Americans we already have here. My fear is that all that is needed is a further nudge in the wrong direction to derail the train completely and a significant demographic change could be that nudge. I really hope I am wrong…

Joe Cushing
Oct 5 2010 at 1:47pm

Human evolution has it’s roots in hunter gatherer societies. In a hunter gatherer society, immigrants are a threat to your ability to survive and pass on your genes because food is limited per square mile. I would suspect we have eveolved to feel threatened by outsiders for this reason. All arguments against immigration are simply attempts to rationalize an emotion that is irational in today’s society. I think it’s important to point this out because you will never convince people without addressing the root cause of their discomfort.

One way to counter this is to tap into our evolutionary reason to favor immigration–gene pool diversification. I have to say that one reason I am so open to immigration is I have a strong sexual attraction to women who are different than me. I know I’m not alone in this. How borring it would be dating from a pool of people who look the same.

Oct 5 2010 at 2:45pm

This discussion could almost have been one for abandoning the concept of nation-state sovereignty altogether. The very idea that it’s somehow immoral to deny someone unfettered physical access to a country’s system and resources is absurd on its face.

I can’t think of a single historical example of a civilized culture having and retaining an open-borders policy while continuing to thrive for any significant period of time (this doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, or couldn’t happen, but I can’t think of one). No other sizable country on earth has these policies as far as I’m aware either. Prof. Caplan would be willing to take a huge gamble on this without even acknowledging the precarious position he’s in. That in itself gives me pause; these issues are significant and he sweeps them away with rough broad strokes.

I realize that these are discussions rather than academic proofs, but Prof. Caplan provided little more than general hunches about stats involving current immigration.

As transient as we are these days, free trade and the right to travel are up for debate. It’s entirely a different thing to propose that anyone should be able to domicile in the US without restriction. That seems like an invitation to a “divide and conquer” strategy, to me.

Patrick L
Oct 5 2010 at 2:55pm

From Stephen:

I don’t have a Creator-endowed right to waltz into whatever territory I want

Stephen, assume the the least convenient possible world. People do have the inalienable right to freedom of movement, just as they have the right to property, life, pursuit of happiness, speech, and religion, but that almost all governments engage in an oppressive regime of restricting it in some fashion or another. Actually that’s not even least convenient or that terrible of a stretch to imagine, since until very recently most of the world engaged in some oppression or another of a right we take for granted.

So better yet, imagine a world where (for some arbitrary reason) people believed they had the right to freedom of movement, like they have the right to freedom of religion or speech or property. Imagine some person comes along and declares it would be a good idea for the government to put a restriction on new entrants into our country.

Wouldn’t most freedom loving people in such a world reject such a proposal in disgust, in much the same way we view censorship or restriction on religious practice? Wouldn’t most freedom loving people come to a great many rationalizations as to why people should have the right to move where they want, even if we find it objectionable? Wouldn’t some even claim we had a god given right to movement, and it would be wrong to arrest people without a really good reason to do it?

To everyone else would any argument brought forth by the anti-immigration people hold up? Would it be convincing to liberty lovers in such a world? Even Stephen’s objection to the pentagon seems to be a case of ‘shouting fire in a theatre’, which even if we accept it as true we would not find it a case where there is no unbreakable moral claim to freedom of speech.

Oct 5 2010 at 2:58pm

A few comments (lloydfour and others) suggested improving other countries as a potential solution to problems from large waves of immigration. I see two drastic problems with this – first, our history as a nation has included policies that keep us out of the internal affairs of other countries (except since the cold war era). Free trade is great; imposing our will in other countries for our own ends seems a fool’s errand with massive potential unintended consequences. Second, if we will have a nation-wide financial problem from supporting internal systems for individual immigrants, how on Earth will we be able to afford supporting the growth of entire foreign governments?

So many other comments were very interesting, but the one that stands out the most is the argument that 3-5 generations in, immigrants’ families will include people who grow old and use the benefits of the existing social welfare programs. The argument is that this use of programs will be a leech on other “native” taxpayers. How does this logic stand? How many current residents of the US are less than 5th generation? These people are citizens, are taxpayers, are contributors. How can a person’s current residence status be used to forever determine their offspring’s quality as citizens of this country. Go far enough back, and we are all immigrants.

And as for agnostic’s comments that crime, intelligence, and other critical social parameters are “linked” with national origin – please don’t confuse correlation with causality.

Oct 5 2010 at 3:06pm

Sorry for the reactionary tone in my earlier comment. I did enjoy the podcast greatly this week.

While I do agree some consideration should be given to the concept of the critical mass argument that a society may lose whatever it is that makes it unique if it is less than its own majority, I found most of the open immigration discussion points very engaging. I have also found that most immigrants I know express a strong desire to assimilate into American culture rather than assert their home culture here, possibly with the exception of food. People emigrate because they see something better in a new place than where they are currently. As a rule, that mindset would logically be connected most often with a desire to participate in what it is that makes the new country so appealing, and a drive to succeed.

America’s structure that allows re-invention and success, and that does not demonize failure (only that someone pay their due and try again) is one central aspect of the genius behind our national greatness. Why not allow more people to enter this society and contribute their part?

Gabriel Rossman
Oct 5 2010 at 3:15pm

In almost every case where there was some objection, Dr. Caplan suggested some kind of grand bargain to solve it. Regardless of whether these could be enacted in the short-run, there’s a huge problem of time consistency.

For instance, Canada’s immigration system is designed to benefit native-born Canadians and so they have a mostly skills based immigration system with very few of the kind of family unification slots that are so important in America. However once established in Canada, the migrants understandably wish to have their relatives join them and are politically organizing to add more family unification slots, thereby making the immigration system relatively less attractive from the viewpoint of the original population (and the Canadian welfare state if these family unification slots are used for elderly parents).

Likewise, many countries that were worried about changes to their culture and political institutions have established guest worker programs without a path to citizenship, or at least only cumbersome paths to citizenship that are not self-enforcing like US birthright policy. After a generation or two these countries have to choose between establishing a permanent caste system (eg, the Gulf states) or revising the original host-migrant bargain to terms less attractive to the original population (eg, France and Germany).

To a certain extent these issues all boil down to why we have democracy with equal citizenship rights and what it would imply to change this. In the long run, maintaining any of the grand bargains Caplan proposes in order to get open borders would require limiting or abrogating the political power of the migrants (and possibly even the incumbent population). You have to ask is it possible/desirable to have a large permanently disenfranchised population or even no democracy at all but a benign libertarian dictatorship. I don’t really see any other way to massively increase domestic inequality (by allowing free entry of very low skill workers) without ultimately getting massive redistributive and possibly other illiberal policies, bad institutions, etc.

That’s not to say that these time consistency problems necessarily overwhelm the case, only that there are good reasons not to be completely glib about answering objections with “well, let’s find a more humane way to address that” because unless you are willing to undermine democracy (and possibly not even then) such more humane solutions are unstable equilibria.

[FWIW, although I’m skeptical of completely or nearly open borders, I favor moderate levels of migration].

Hugo Pimentel
Oct 5 2010 at 5:13pm

@John the Libertarian I fully support your comment especially the last paragraph.

@Russ Roberts you mentioned at the beginning of the podcast that a video of Bryan Caplan’s immigration speech was online but I was not able to find it. Can you please post a link to it?

[The video link is at the top of this page, under Readings and Links Related to this Podcast. The url is –Econlib Ed.]

Eric Hosemann
Oct 5 2010 at 6:22pm

Is it me or is using status quo bias to explain why people prefer the status quo just like this exchange:

“What is it in opium that makes people sleepy?”
“Its dormitive virtue.”

What is it that makes people oppose lifting immigration restrictions? Their opposition to lifting immigration restrictions!

Of course it’s not as simple as that, things never are. I think open borders are a nice idea; they certainly conform to my “priors.” It’s a pleasure to listen to intellectuals like Russ and Bryan discuss such a sensitive issue thoroughly and with such care.

Oct 5 2010 at 8:37pm


“This discussion could almost have been one for abandoning the concept of nation-state sovereignty altogether. The very idea that it’s somehow immoral to deny someone unfettered physical access to a country’s system and resources is absurd on its face.”

This is were I ended up as well. If nation-state sovereignty exists, there is no problem with physical exclusion, if it doesn’t then there clearly is.

As far as I can tell, nation-state sovereignty is still a readily recognized concept in international relations.


J. X.
Oct 5 2010 at 9:14pm

Caplan’s remarks about being “humane” on immigration were one sided entirely. He never considers the impact on quality of life for people living here. His argument to bring in more diversity to build distrust and reduce welfare spending is well-known by sociologists, but hardly a worthy goal. Perhaps we should first start in his neighborhood? Why would anyone want to live in an area where they distrust their neighbors? Why should this be the goal for social engineers? Is it humane to implement immigration policies that drive out those that live here and make them feel unsafe in their own neighborhoods?

Next then is the web of affirmative action programs the government has layered on society. Each new non-white immigrant is another affirmative action quota admission to a school or job promotion that a white student or worker needs to compete against. White discrimination takes place in school admissions and job promotions routinely and happens far more often than reported. Why should white citizens be punished at the expense of a relative new comer for the best jobs and schools?

Further, if these immigrants and their children are capable of performing so well (as Caplan asserts) then why are these programs even needed? What supposed injustice has been inflicted upon people that *chose* to come here that they should receive favored treatment? Why should they be admitted to the best schools with lower test scores if they are as academically gifted as the natives? Why should they get promoted for jobs when they perform lower on promotion exams? Looking at minority dropout rates nationally, it is clear that the children of many immigrants are not performing as well as others and nothing done so far can close this achievement gap. Quotas aren’t going to fix the problem as they punish native whites who did nothing wrong and lower our standards which hurts our ability to compete.

On crime. Hispanics are several times more likely to be involved in violent criminal activity than whites in the US for instance. I don’t know how Caplan reached his conclusions to say otherwise. Immigrants make up a disproportionate number of Federal inmates and state inmates currently. Here’s a test for Caplan and Roberts. See if you can spot the pattern in this FBI most wanted list:

FBI Most Wanted Violent Murderers

Culture matters. The idea of allowing in one billion people into the country may seem like the Libertarian nirvana. But what would that do to the culture of the country? Caplan and Roberts poo-poo this idea but it’s a very real matter. The mass immigration we have today is far larger than we ever had in the past. We also have massive welfare support systems in place that never existed before. In earlier times those that couldn’t make it went home. Today we are expected to pay for everything and if citizens complain we are called “racists” and other nasty names.

Caplan’s “thought experiment” about being locked out of your own country to languish in Haiti is off the mark. Countries should be able to control who should come in to protect their population’s interest. Those with disease, criminal records, burdens on the public, etc. can very well be excluded and are in most countries on this planet. And why shouldn’t they? Why is one population being put on the hook to provide jobs, welfare, education, health care and other support to the billions on the planet that don’t have these things? Even if the US could afford it, why would it be in their interest to bring in this many people who can contribute so little and will bring in problems to those living here?

Further, many countries are openly discriminatory against those not like themselves or they think will be a problem. Japan and Israel have tight citizen requirements except if you are Japanese or Jewish for instance. Are they racist xenophobes or just looking out for what they think is best for their country and culture? They aren’t the only ones either that do this. Are these countries at an economic disadvantage? Not that I can tell.

Last point since Caplan wanted to pick on the Midwest and Portland as to how enlightened and cosmopolitan he is because he eats cous-cous with his burritos in the big city. If I could snap my fingers and instantly teleport the entire population of Haiti to Portland and the entire population of Portland to Haiti what would it look like in, say, 50 years? Would Portland be the thriving nice city to live in that it is now? Or would it look more like Port Au Prince today – A third world disaster? Having been to Haiti I know what my guess is. And the opposite would also be true that in 50 years the inhabitants of Portland could make even Haiti habitable.

Again, culture matters. Japan is a resource starved island nation that is one of the most technologically advanced in the world. It is clean, safe and productive. Mexico is very resource rich but is a corrupt basket case and always has been. But according to Caplan and Roberts this is just something that shouldn’t be. Why would a country like Japan with very restrictive immigration and relatively few resources be so successful but Mexico with a larger population of cheap labor and many resources be so poor? The free market/open borders explanation fails to explain these things because they assume all cultures and people are the same when they are in fact *not* the same. Clearly the Japanese people have something that the Mexican populace does not have.

Open borders is an outgrowth of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is a Marxist idea and like all Marxist ideas, it’s wrong. Culture matters and people are not interchangeable cogs. Mass immigration into Western countries from the third-world is a disaster and it is becoming increasingly clear to many people what a disaster it actually is.

Oct 6 2010 at 1:43am

I thought most of those who listened to EconTalk were libertarians. But from reading through the comments, it seems that many are nationalists imbued with a misguided belief that that “American” culture above all else is responsible for our relative wealth. It seems to me that America would be much better off with an open border policy. To point fingers at a country like Haiti to argue otherwise betrays, in my view any way, cultural and historical ignorance.

William Easterly, I think, could well explain why Haiti is a basket case. It has nothing to do with the IQ of its inhabitants or its culture, but rather with its unfortunate history. Haiti’s impoverishment began at its birth in 1804, when having overthrown its French overlords, it was subjected to crippling embargoes and blockades. Twenty years later, in an effort to put an end to the blockades, it agreed to pay 150 million gold francs to France in “restitution” for lost slaves and other revenue. Due to the usurious interest rates demanded by France, Haiti’s debt was not paid off until 1947. Over its 200 year history, Haiti has been plagued by outside “beneficence” — an invasion by the US in 1915, CIA intervention in its politics, and overthrow of its elected rulers.

Perhaps all of this seems off-point. But, governments do as governments do. They start wars, encourage nationalistic and xenophobic attitudes among citizens, and, above all else, maintain the power of influential supporters of the status quo. The U.S. government gives favored constituencies subsidies (the corn, sugar and cotton farmers in the U.S.) which put farmers in Mexico and other countries out of business Then it closes our borders and, without a hint of sarcasm, claims to be in favor of “free trade”.

To support this status quo based on a belief that we are somehow ethnically or culturally superior seems to be the antithesis of liberal (or libertarian) thought.

By the way, I am pretty sure that Professor Caplan is right about crime rates among immigrants. If any one is interested, I can try to find Department of Justice studies to back him back.

Ralph Buchanan
Oct 6 2010 at 7:49am

Personally I believe America is the land of opportunity and all are welcome through legal channels if they comply with requirements and become legal citizens – the rights are contingent upon accepting the responsibilities. I have many immigrant friends also, and they are the most vocal proponents of legal channels and become angry over discussions of illegals/amnesty etc… Open immigration and ILLEGAL immigration are very different things.

The thought experiment is a straw man – An American citizen (on welfare or not) denied his rights is not the same as a non citizen denied access. A friend’s husband who went to Haiti on a mission trip after the disaster had a wall fall on him and broke his neck – now physically ‘nonproductive’ you would deny him his rights as an American and access to his family.

Illegals frequently don’t speak English – businesses must train language, and non-English speakers’ advancement is limited by language constrictions. More of them, the less likely they are to learn English since they have an entire community of their own native speakers. How much does it cost to print and process government and private business forms in multiple languages, or conduct government business in multiple languages? You can’t assume the private sector costs would be covered by gains, since regulation costs aren’t equally bearable – some businesses would fail from the costs of multilingual services.

Illegals rent but don’t own. Furthermore, buying a house, years ago, we came to closing and it was discovered that the woman selling wasn’t a citizen of the USA (husband bought and died). There is a Fee associated with that transaction above the cost of buying the house, and you assume responsibility for the taxes: Increased housing costs (prohibitive in our case at that time) and uncertainty for my pregnant wife and I who had to move out of the apartment by the end of the month. In our case the woman had a child of legal age so she transferred title and the sale occurred. Weeks later, as my wife was walking around the block a man speaking broken English approached her, told her he just moved here and rented and asked her where he goes to obtain government services.

Availability of cheap labor does reduce wages within an industry. Prospective union organization of that labor would definitely harm industries, consumers, and many workers who would lose their jobs. As professors, by your own admission you are facing costs from immigration. There is also the issue of how they are educating. A friend took US History in a state University – class taught by a Chinese exchange teacher who taught a Marxist slant on history – for many this was their only college history course (of course, a legal citizen college professor might have taught the same slant).

Politics: Sovereignty and protection: What are we protecting?
What the immigrants are supposed to know are the ideas that made this country unique, that the founders presented and based our system upon. In America “culture” isn’t just ethnicity, it is political and economic freedom, and the understanding that all are Created Equal. Former soviet republics discovered in the 1990s that many couldn’t just step into capitalism because it was beyond their experience – it had to be learned since all the incentives are different from a centrally controlled society.

Your fallback argument is we could just make sure the immigrants take a test of … The sum of these is that you’d accept immigrants that are educated English-speakers who already understand and agree with American principles.
How about Islam and Sharia law – some recent British terrorists were immigrant physicians.

Illegal immigration is already a crime. Unfortunately we are currently paying for a federal suit against states trying to enforce existing laws.

Open borders between the states that all share the same federal civil/political laws and interstate commerce laws is not comparable to the national border issue – that’s another straw man.

Heterogeneity doesn’t make the welfare state any more affordable or change the morality of the concept at all.

Home country already paid for education is a bogus argument – it doesn’t cost us any less to pay for the Dept of Education. Formerly, higher education would have been an exception, but that too is becoming a government provision and rising tuition costs is a result.

Interesting podcast but not very educational – like watching the news.
You’re still the best Russ, Thanks.

Oct 6 2010 at 8:03am

The discussion on wages seems incomplete without discussing minimum wage. What about the employment rate for high school dropouts?

Oct 6 2010 at 9:42am

I enjoyed this format. I would like to see more of this type of stuff throughout media — addressing most or all key objections to an issue.

I think the discussion missed one underlying assumption that drives opposition to immigration: the zero-sum worldview, that we have a fixed pie and letting in more people shrinks everyone elses’ share instead of growing the size of the pie.

Perhaps the first part of discussion about the effect on wages touched on it and the last part about the effects of limiting immigration to place like Portland and the benefits of living in NYC, but I’m not sure if the zero-sum worldview was ever directly addressed.

IMO that’s key. Dispel the zero-sum view and you win over a lot of people.

David H
Oct 6 2010 at 9:53am

Is there any level of immigration that would be harmful?

What if 100 million Latin Americans, 200 million Africans, 100 million south Asians and 200 million Chinese citizens acquired or were given the resources to immigrate? It is important to remember that for the very poor 1-2 billion people at the bottom in this world, immigrating to the US under any circumstances would improve their lot in life. Would assimilation of this many individuals over a short period of time (say 10 years) pose a problem?

[Clarification: The “David H” of this comment is not the same person as the EconLog blogger, David Henderson.–Econlib Ed.]

Famous J
Oct 6 2010 at 11:48am

Here’s a different scenario than the Haiti one that Prof. Caplan laid out:

I have a spare bedroom which I use as an office, but it’s got a couch in it. I live in suburban Detroit. There is a multitude of impoverished people in the city that would be delighted if I let them live in my spare room. Do I have an obligation to find a stranger in the city of Detroit and let him or her stay there? Or if not that, to allow anyone who knocks on my door and asks politely to stay? Clearly doing so would improve this person’s life dramatically. And the room is quite arguably underutilized.

Prof. Caplan is a big believer in private property. I’m sure he would agree that my house is my private property and I’m under no obligation, moral or otherwise, to let anyone live in my spare bedroom, no matter how much it might improve their lot in life.

I suggest that a nation is private property. And it’s owned by the people who live there. And they are under no more moral obligation to let anyone in than I am under an obligation to let someone live in my office.

Yes, being born or living in a country is to a large degree an accident of birth. Lots of things are. If I inherit a car from my father after he died, I would consider that no more “my car” than if I paid for it by scrubbing toilets. Last time I checked, Prof. Caplan is not proposing a 100% estate tax to “level the playing field”.

I think he made some fairly persuasive arguments that some worries about immigration are overblown. I especially liked his point that “unskilled labor” is actually a fairly heterogeneous category, so you can’t just assume that anyone is “taking jobs” away from native born Americans. Although there’s something amiss in his characterization of immigrants committing fewer crimes than the native born. Possibly, but what about the first few generations after the initial immigrants?

I just think he unfairly places the burden of proof on people who would like to limit immigration.

Zane Rockenbaugh
Oct 6 2010 at 4:55pm

Regarding the opening comment, which I assume was in response to comments on the previous episode (including my own) along the lines of “why wasn’t statement X questioned”:

The opening comments may not be giving the listeners/commenters enough credit. For my part, I don’t need permisson to be skeptical, and whether Russ agreed with a particular point or not is entirely beside the point.

I want to hear people questioned (especially regarding wild assertions) because I want to hear the response to tough questions. I’ll make up my mind whether I agree or not on my own, but without hearing how they respond to the obvious challenges–which Russ is usually pretty good at covering–it’s tough to really understand someone’s point of view.

Oct 6 2010 at 5:01pm

@Famous J

Prof. Caplan is a big believer in private property. I’m sure he would agree that my house is my private property and I’m under no obligation, moral or otherwise, to let anyone live in my spare bedroom, no matter how much it might improve their lot in life.

I suggest that a nation is private property. And it’s owned by the people who live there. And they are under no more moral obligation to let anyone in than I am under an obligation to let someone live in my office.

Yes, being born or living in a country is to a large degree an accident of birth. Lots of things are. If I inherit a car from my father after he died, I would consider that no more “my car” than if I paid for it by scrubbing toilets. Last time I checked, Prof. Caplan is not proposing a 100% estate tax to “level the playing field”.


Russ Roberts
Oct 6 2010 at 6:23pm

Famous J

You wrote:

I suggest that a nation is private property. And it’s owned by the people who live there. And they are under no more moral obligation to let anyone in than I am under an obligation to let someone live in my office.

But a nation isn’t private property. You can see the problem when I suggest letting someone into the country to mow my lawn and you disagree. You don’t want to let them in. So who owns the right to let people in? Us? But we don’t agree. There is no “us” or “we” who own it. There will be a policy that establishes who can come in and under what terms, but there’s no sense in which the owner makes the decision.

The fundamental question would be why are you opposed to letting me hire someone from another country to work for me. You could have some good reasons. Bryan tried to argue why some of those reasons may not be persuasive as one might think.

The other issue to consider is that everyone here in the United States today (other than real Native Americans) is an immigrant or the descendant of immigrants. Was it wrong to let us in or our parents and grandparents. If that was OK (and I am oh so glad my ancestors came here), why did the logic change?

Oct 6 2010 at 11:10pm

I would like to add a “humane alternative” to the “problem” of immigrants coming to the USA for welfare: sponsorship. Upon entry, somebody can sign a contract with the state that if the immigrant imposes a burden on the state, that person will reimburse the state.

Oct 6 2010 at 11:32pm

“1. The claim that there is a presumption against immigration restrictions, and that these fail if no good reason can be given, will sink a society. Did the pacified Romans have proof that the Germanic tribes would overrun them and level their civilization, rather than just be a few bad apples or even nice guys? No, something just smelled bad.”

I would like to point out that the Germanic tribes did not in fact level the Roman civilization. That is a commonly believed myth, but inaccurate. Furthermore, I find myself surprised by your confusion of peaceful immigration with active war.

“3. Any financial gain is of dubious boost to utility at our stage of development. We’re not in pre-modern England anymore. Just about everyone would be perfectly happy if we froze our standard-of-living during the 1980s, plus some immigration-irrelevant time for internet access, PCs, and cell phones to become cheaper (all were already invented and commercially available).”

Congratulations. I wish you all the best living in the 1980s. I personally enjoy the fact that my standard of living keeps rising and would not be satisfied at all being stuck in the 1980s.

“8. For crime, see point 4 above that the main cause of concern is the effect throughout the near and medium term, not right this moment. No one is worried that much about current illegal immigrants since everyone suspects that they’re ultra-cautious, lest they get caught and sent back.

What happens once their numbers begin to rise over time? We get generations that aren’t afraid of being sent back home.”

Well, a couple generations later, they are not immigrants anymore. They most likely are citizens, just like you. Do you commit crimes since you are not afraid of being “sent back home”?

“Fundamentally, the median American — or anyone — cannot be of two minds.”

You obviously have not been paying attention to conservative rhetoric. We will protect your Medicare, but we don’t want government messing with your healthcare. Government stay out of the labor market, except to keep immigrants out of it. And the list goes on…

Jim Labbe
Oct 7 2010 at 1:15am

Russ and Bryan,

You need to come to Portland and learn about our regional growth management system here rather than accept the characterizations, favorable or unfavorable, by its champions or its critics.

I found you discussion of Portland colored by a lot of bad information and myth.

There is a lot of confusion about how we manage growth in Portland and how it has and has not changed patterns of growth and development in the region.

Public policies do not prohibit growth here. Rather regional policies try to manage and channel growth and development to encourage it in some places and discourage it in others. Those policies do in some cases restrict development in some specific areas through zoning to protect forest, farmland and other environmentally sensitive lands or natural areas. But those policies absolutely DO NOT try to restrict the overall quantity of growth in the region. In fact they are meant to accommodate with public infrastructure and investment it more efficient manner.

For example, the urban growth boundary (UGB)- that gets a lot of attention from outsiders but is greatly misunderstood even by people living in Portland- does not restrict the land supply. It determines where, not if there will be land available for development. State law actually requires the UGB to be expanded to accommodate a 20-year supply of land. It combined with targeted and regionally coordinated investments in public infrastructure, the UGB guides where growth and development will occur.

Other regional policies actually function to limit local government policies that would otherwise limit development in some place. This fact is greatly misunderstood by many libertarian critics of oregon’s system of land-use planning. The most successful regional policies in managing growth in the Portland region actually function to liberalize local zoning restrictions that would otherwise keep development out of certain areas. Requirements that local governments upzone designated centers and corridors to provide a range of densities and housing types actually prevents- to some degree- cities from zoning out certain types of development. In recent years these policies have actually aligned quite well with market forces, encouraged better coordination between private developers and public infrastructure investments, and fostered the more compact, walkable communities increasingly sought after by people of all ages.

Regional growth manage policies that work in this way with market forces are actually the answer to those who say immigration degrades the social and environmental health of a communities. It recognizes that environmental degradation is not driven by population growth or development per se but how and where that population and development occurs, especially a the scale of metropolitan region. Those that argue that immigration cause environmental degradation don’t understand this. Unfortunately some critics of Portland’s planning don’t fully appreciate this either.

At a local level there is really no way for government NOT be involved in decisions relating to growth and development. They can either be involved in a constructive or destructive way. What has worked in Portland is a degree of harmonization in government policy, private development, and public sentiment that has shaped growth and development in ways desired by the community at large.

Jim Labbe
Portland Oregon

[name fixed–Econlib Ed.]

Carl Jones
Oct 7 2010 at 10:25am

What you do not understand is that Hispanic immigrants never assimilate into American culture. They sort of assimilate into a low class American culture. Second and third generation Hispanics have much higher crime rates, much lower rates of educational attainment, and much higher high school drop out rates. The fact that first generation immigrants have a lower crime rate is irrelevant unless you can prevent them from having kids.

Oct 7 2010 at 11:08am

PrometheeFeu – I couldn’t agree more.

In addition, the comment from agnostic reminds me of another:

Just about everyone would be perfectly happy if we froze our standard-of-living during the 1980s, plus some immigration-irrelevant time for internet access, PCs, and cell phones to become cheaper (all were already invented and commercially available).

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.” Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. patent office, 1899

I was also thinking of the discussion early in the podcast about a diverse ethnic society leading to distrust and less welfare. I feel this may be a cause, but does not seem to make the point either for or against welfare systems. More like other podcasts, it seems more beneficial on this issue to examine what is known or is likely the balance of society (ethnicity aside) with various levels of publicly provided social programs. Based on possible benefits and drawbacks, and a society’s value on the respective effects, a goal can be defined. If the effects of ethnic diversity of a society aides or detracts from that goal, that seems more relevant than just the phenomenon itself.

Russ Roberts
Oct 7 2010 at 11:37am

Carl Jones,

Hispanic immigrants never assimilate? A bold claim. You cite no data. I’d be curious to know why you think those things are true. Here is one example of the pace of assimilation for Hispanic immigrants.

John Berg
Oct 7 2010 at 3:44pm

Please read the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment because of its importance to the rest of this discussion.

Using the Constitution, citizens have defined the rules of entry and the rules for granting citizenship.

The Constitution is a contract among the States. The contract limits the powers granted to the Federal government to those specifically mentioned in the Constitution. Until the 14th Amendment, citizenship had been granted by the States. Think of citizenship like membership in a club. Under the Constitution citizens have the power to decide who gets citizenship, i.e., how new members are selected. Leaving our border open to allow illegal entry does not make the illegal aliens citizens. Indeed, one should be suspicious of the motives of those who chose not to secure our border. Like leaving the theater’s side door open for friends. Nor are the children of illegal aliens, even if born in the US, as
determined by the 14th Amendment.

John Berg

Oct 7 2010 at 5:01pm

I continue to be amazed at the claims of economists towards fields way beyond their expertise. Immigration has an economical dimension, but immigration influences many other aspects of a society.

Economists can offer us interesting insights, but they should really learn to know their place. To claim there are no rational arguments against immigraton is just, well, way over the top. No other field makes these claims. I rarely see doctors argue on legal issues in the media, yet economists feel themselves capable of it.

You also know when we’ll be visiting Mars? Why aren’t things like teleportation, time travel or the electric car not here? Too much taxes?

Oct 7 2010 at 7:12pm

Russ & Bryan – One major reason why American voters are not willing to discuss immigration on the merits, is the broken promise in 1986 that Reagan and Congress made to control our borders. I submit that until and unless our government proves that it is willing to and CAN control our borders there will be no movement by American voters on immigration.

Bogdan Enache
Oct 8 2010 at 2:07am

Lingua franca means “free language”, language that is a kind of passport – not French language.

Some anccestors of the French, a German tribe called Franks conquered long ago the Roman province of Gaule – subsequently they were free and the rest more or less un free, hence the concept of lingua fanca. In the Middle Ages Latin was the lingua franca.

John Berg
Oct 8 2010 at 1:17pm

Bryan needs to be reminded that the US has a government that consists of a documented process and a “machine” to execute the process in order to accomplish the intent of the documented process(the US Constitution and Federal law). Immigration is currently under the control of that process–although I can think of improvements to that process. Both Bryan and I can offer our suggestions to that process.

My first suggestion would be to require the POTUS to secure our borders starting with the Mexican-US border. Perhaps it will be necessary to re-direct all Immigration Resources to this effort and put all on-going immigration efforts on hold until the Mexican-US border is secure.

John Berg

John Berg
Oct 8 2010 at 3:49pm

The States are the sovereign entities with powers reserved to themselves. The 14th amendment marks the point in time when the US “kinda” changed from “These United States” to “The United States.” Each State continues to govern in its own unique way but the Constitution grants certain specific governing power to Feds. This is the “consent of people” so important to governance. Unfortunately for Bryan’s personal wishes, the Constitution has no power of compassion.

John Berg

Oct 8 2010 at 6:17pm

I was REALLY skeptical at the beginning of the podcast, but I found a lot of the arguments in favor of open immigration to be disturbingly persuasive. That said, I would like to take some issue with a few things:

  1. The opening thought experiment: the idea the the US government could deny re-entry to a citizen is not the same as denying entry to a non-citizen because the government derives it’s authority and legitimacy from the citizens.
  2. Just because we can’t put out finger on why a nation should control immigration into it doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. I cannot think of a nation with no controls over its borders that has survived as a nation for very long. I may just be ignorant here, so if there is an example, please enlighten me. I think that sometimes evidence of the benefits of a cultural norm (like controlling immigration) may be that those groups who do it survive, and those who do not are replaced by others who do.
  3. I find the example of free migration between the 50 US states non-persuasive because the individual states have not been sovereign since at least 1857 (and probably before.)
  4. I was a little bothered by (what seem to me to be) Caplan’s willingness to make arguments in which he did not believe simply because they might persuade people. I find it difficult to believe that any of the solutions offered to mollify open- immigration objectors would remain in place once free and open immigration was achieved. I did, however, appreciate Caplan’s openness and honesty about his insincerity on those points.
Simon C
Oct 8 2010 at 9:43pm

I am an immigrant and very much in favour of open borders. I’ve had this type of argument many times and thought Bryan had some good ways to think about these points. Hopefully I can use his arguments when I’m discussing this in future.

I have one big point that I still don’t understand however. It seems that the arguments are always made with a view only to the welfare of the receiving nation. I can see that it is in this case a US policy, so the question is often viewed only in US terms. Still, the effects are on all the people involved so if we’re thinking of the effect of the policy in moral terms, don’t we have to think about the net effects on all people involved? For me as neither a Mexican nor an American, I have equal concern for both sides so only considering the impact on American seems odd. Why should I not care about the great improvements that Mexicans can make given these freedoms? To put it another way, if the proposal was to make a new border within the US, I think the impact on both sides would be discussed. Though people often argue for stronger borders around the country, I’ve never heard anyone suggest adding more internally.

To think about immigration issues in a more neutral way, perhaps the discussion should not focus on the US. Perhaps the question should be, should Japan have a more open immigration policy? I imagine more listeners would be sympathetic once they are attached to neither side of the discussion.

Mike Laursen
Oct 9 2010 at 12:26am

re: “The opening thought experiment: the idea the the US government could deny re-entry to a citizen is not the same as denying entry to a non-citizen because the government derives it’s authority and legitimacy from the citizens.”

I have to challenge that statement. It may be true in theory, but in actuality the government of a huge country like the United States can’t be said to derive it’s legitimacy from anything.

It’s just something that is, that has evolved to what it is. It’s more like what Vonnegut described as a “granfalloon”, than something that was, in fact, carefully architected and guided to what it has become.

Mike Laursen
Oct 9 2010 at 12:45am

Although it might seem perfectly logical to insist that we control our borders before we start allowing more legal immigration, the practical truth is that we cannot control our borders with the current pressure of illegal immigration. Allowing more legal immigration, then, is a practical step toward being able to control our borders, not the other way around.

Mike Laursen
Oct 9 2010 at 12:54am

As Caplan points out, if you are deeply concerned about immigration bringing in criminal elements, the logical thing to do would be to exclude all male immigrants between about the ages of 16 and 25. And there wouldn’t be much reason to exclude anybody else.

Building on Caplan’s point, though, a possibly more humane way to deal with 16-25 year-old male immigrants would be to require them to do military service. Of course, this isn’t just an abstract idea. Just a few days ago, the Obama administration signed legislation that makes it easier for military volunteers from foreign countries to get on the path to citizenship.

John Berg
Oct 9 2010 at 11:37am

The preamble to the US Constitution:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The preamble begins by naming those intended to benefit from the document. It says nothing about “the bottom billion.” Specifically it lists benefits it intends to provide, “to ourselves and our Posterity.” I can understand Bryan’s desire for compassion and would argue that the Constitution provides the private property and individual rights to permit his pursuing his plan but nothing in the Constitution permits him to involve me in his scheme.

Indeed it may be more cost effective and self-sustaining to manufacture and send vaccines to the bottom billion. Or, alternatively, to send support for maternal or post-natal care. The worse choice would be to destroy the system that served as the worlds Life saver in the 20th century. And that might happen if we don’t manage immigration in a way that sustains our Republic.

John Berg

Simon C
Oct 9 2010 at 12:11pm

Can I ask the following to anyone who favours immigration controls?

Do you think there are any countries in the world to which Americans should not be allowed to go freely, to find work and live if they choose to do so? Or do you think Americans should be free to travel and live and work as they desire?

Carl Jones
Oct 9 2010 at 12:54pm


It’s true that I may have overstated the case. Because I worked for a few years entirely with Mexican and Central American immigrants in Texas, I was exposed mostly to first, second, and third generation Americans. Many assimilate, of course, but in general they have a subculture that is more accepting of dropping out of high school and getting a low paying job. That may not be true of the tenth generation, but I don’t know.

But in response to your response, there are a few reasons I have concluded that Hispanics do not assimilate. One is the higher rates of incarceration of the second generation than the first generation or white Americans. Look at the arrests and incarceration section of this article:

The next is that their wages do not seem to ever catch up to the wages of white workers. Look at page 47 of this report: PPIC report

Third is that the rates of educational attainment are lower for the second and third generation of Mexican Americans than for other Americans.PPIC report

Also, we already have other evidence that values are passed through generations. Black Americans, who are immigrants from former slave states and their descendants, have been living in California for many generations, but still have far lower rates of graduation from college and far higher crime rates than other Californians. The first few generations of Mexican Americans have so far performed comparatively poorly as well.

John Berg
Oct 9 2010 at 2:45pm

Any sovereign state (SS) with defined borders and a government may define the conditions of citizenship. Therefore each SS may decide whether American citizens have the privileges you state.
For example, Saudi Arabia, operating under Shariah, denies citizenship to non-muslims. As a SS, the US has defined laws under the Constitution for entry, including immigration.

Frankly, the present laws defining citizenship require clarification. I would prefer limiting US citizenship. Any other SS could permit granting citizenship to someone with US Citizenship but no one should be granted US Citizenship without first refusing all other Citizenships.

John Berg

Simon C
Oct 9 2010 at 9:16pm

Any sovereign state (SS) with defined borders and a government may define the conditions of citizenship.

Thank you for your reply. You’re not quite answering the question I wanted to ask though. I’m not asking if or can other countries restrict the rights to live and work of US citizens. I want to know if you think they should. Ideally, I want to know if you think that’s morally better that they do.

To clarify another point, I’m not really asking about citizenship. The right to vote is not really an important one. I’m really thinking about whether we should have unlimited work visas which would be simple to obtain for anyone and which would not expire.

Simon C
Oct 9 2010 at 9:50pm

Perhaps I can just spell out my quandary with this issue and I would be grateful if anyone who opposes, let’s call it “limitless work visas without benefit rights” can explain to me how they avoid it.

1. I believe in the golden rule, that I should do unto others as I would have them do unto me.

2. For myself, I would like to go where ever I please in the world and I would like to be free to stay as long as I like. I would like to be free to work or not work as suits me while I’m there. As I say, I’m not that bothered whether I can vote while I’m there. I’m also perfectly happy if I’m denied all state benefits while I’m there, even if paying taxes. That’s fine. I just want to be free to go, stay and work or not work. As it happens, I am in fact enjoying this happy state, living in a country other than the one I was born in.

Just from these two statements above I feel I cannot ever justify denying someone else the right to visit, stay in or work in another country.

I’d like to understand how the people who would restrict the movements of others feel about the above. Do they not believe 1 or not feel 2? Or can they put the two together without reaching the same conclusions I do?

Otto Kerner
Oct 9 2010 at 10:25pm

I think that Cowen’s (and apparently Russ’ as well) approach to the “political culture” issue leans heavily in the direction of the strawman argument. I’m thinking of sections like this:

“there is the question of how hell-bent immigrants are on turning the United States into Mexico or Congo. May be that their opinions are moderately less pro-freedom than people who grew up here; seems unlikely this is that big a deal for them.”

“To suggest that somehow their parents will sabotage the political process to keep their kids poor–which is essentially what the argument is–to me shows no knowledge of human nature and why these people come.”

This logic seems to assume that immigrants are people who know what correct policies are to build a successful country (i.e., the policies that libertarians like us believe are correct) and that they will act on that basis (e.g., there will be no public goods problems that would lead them to act against the interests of the country at large). It’s because most immigrants are not very political that we can’t make these assumptions. The first one, in particular, is far from plausible. If we posit a Country X that is in bad shape because of internal issues, such that a lot of the people there want to move to the U.S. for a better life, I’ll wager that most people in Country X have no idea what the problem is. Human nature being what is, a lot of the Country Xites will probably think that Country X customs are actually superior to American customs, but the U.S. has prospered for some coincidental reasons. If they come here in large enough numbers, they will have an impact on American political culture whether they intend to or not.

Granted that it’s a very crude metric: would anyone argue that the voting habits of immigrants are not substantially different from those of native Americans?

Otto Kerner
Oct 9 2010 at 10:41pm


“But a nation isn’t private property.”

I think the concept of border controls is very widely accepted and even assumed because people have the idea that land is owned by nations, or at least that nations own rights to land. In terms of common law, immigration restriction is a negative easement or restrictive covenant prohibiting you from using your land in ways that would otherwise be legal. This idea is not really compatible with libertarian ideas, because, in this case, the owner of the easement is a “nation”, which libertarians do not accept as a valid legal entity. That means that this is a case where libertarian theory is at odds with the customary law is actually in practice and which people seem to find reasonably just.

I suspect that the idea of nations as land owners has roots that go all the way back to the hunter gatherer period, where each small community would have its own territory for use by everyone in the group. Individual property in land presumably didn’t develop until later, when agriculture began to be practiced.

Carl Jones
Oct 9 2010 at 10:50pm

To Simon C:

I would like to be able to go into someone else’s house, eat their food, and wear their clothes. However, I expect not to be allowed to. If I were allowed to live wherever I wanted, that would be fine. However, I expect to be treated as an outsider in another country. I do not expect to automatically be allowed to work and live there any more than I expect to be allowed to live in your house. And of course, I feel it’s fine to prevent people from coming to my country just like I would prevent them from coming to my house. I also feel it’s fine if they want to prevent me from coming to their countries.

More generally, your point 1 is frequently not the right thing to do. I would like you to mail me a check for $500, however, I do not feel any obligation to send you one. So I will, in most cases, not do to you what I would like you to do to me.

Otto Kerner
Oct 9 2010 at 11:37pm


You write: “The other issue to consider is that everyone here in the United States today (other than real Native Americans) is an immigrant or the descendant of immigrants. Was it wrong to let us in or our parents and grandparents. If that was OK (and I am oh so glad my ancestors came here), why did the logic change?”

If we assume that the current citizens of a country are entitled to make a decision about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to move there, then it isn’t really a question of “wrong” or “right”. Americans made the decision to let some people in in the past, and, with the benefit of hindsight, we can say that did or did not serve their interests.

In fact, the situation of the United States in the 19th century was profoundly different from what it is now. In fact, the situation in the 19th century was extremely unusual. To put it in somewhat more realistic terms that people usually do, the English settlers in North America in the 17th century discovered that they had a unique opportunity to steal an enormous amount of very valuable land from its owners, the various indigenous peoples. Because of various advantages, primarily the devastating epidemics among those indigenes and the fact that the English were able to produce food out of the land much more efficiently, they were able to steal the land so easily that it almost seemed like they were simply settling empty land. However, taking over all that land required a lot of time and people. In the end, it took about three hundred years. In hindsight, we could say that maybe there was no need for urgency in stealing the land; it seems like a bit of a foregone conclusion. However, people at the time didn’t necessarily know how much longer they would be in a position to help themselves to it. Imagine, for example, a scenario in which the Axis powers win World War II and Anglophone Americans haven’t yet settled all of the West Coast vs. a scenario in which the Axis wins World War II but the West Coast is populated just as it was in actual history. As far as the interests of U.S. citizens are concerned, the latter is much better.

Therefore, before the frontier was closed, Americans felt an understandable urge to take land as quickly as possible. This required a lot of Americans. The Americans of that day had very high birth rates, but, still, there was a limit to how fast they could reproduce themselves. They found it profitable (I realize that I’m oversimplifying the decision-making process enormously, but I think this is the crux of the matter) to adopt a bunch of people from other European countries as new Americans in order to swell their own ranks. The main requirement was just that the new citizens had to be loyal to the American government and its conquest-and-settlement apparatus.

Since the land is all good and stolen now, we have no longer have any reason to want abnormally high levels of immigration.

A. Zarkov
Oct 10 2010 at 12:06am

Let’s look at the consequences of Bryan’s thought experiment. If the U.S. government started to refuse to let its citizens back into the country, word would get around very quickly, and people would stop traveling outside the country. This would kill off the whole foreign travel industry. Businessmen would stop traveling to make deals and manage U.S. enterprises on foreign soil. In short this would never happen. The people not let back into the country would then become stateless persons. Where would they go? Most likely they would pile up at airport customs. This is why it would be wrong.

If the U.S. refused to allow its citizens back then American citizenship would become worthless. Why would anyone want to pay taxes or serve in the military? Such a policy would destroy the U.S. as a nation-state. The U.S. would then have the status of a patch of ocean or Antarctica.

Bryan has given us a useless and ridiculous argument that proves nothing. He seems not to like the idea of a nation state. Most of rest of the world disagrees with him.

John Berg
Oct 10 2010 at 12:35am

to Simon C.
I was careful to phrase my response to “control” the implications, side-effects, and interactions of a simple “yes” or “no” to your question. Such a response would impact the sovereignty of the US. The Constitution will not permit any compromise of US sovereignty. I fully expect the new Congress to protect agressively national sovereignty against both the UN and the Progressive inclination of the present administration.

Contrary to your view of voting in the US, that power, under our Constitution, is what makes the difference between a view of the US as a Democracy and the factual view of the US as a Republic.

John Berg

Simon C
Oct 10 2010 at 1:31am

To Carl Jones,
Thank you for you reply. I’m afraid I’m still not quite clear on your position. Regarding the golden rule, perhaps I expressed it badly for this case. But essentially I feel if I’m going to say I should be allowed to do something then I don’t feel I can say to anyone else that they can’t.

Your answer seems to say that you don’t think you should be allowed to live and work in other countries and other people should not be allowed to come to live and work in the country of your birth. Have I got that right? No one should every be allowed to work outside the country of their birth? If so, then that is certainly consistent.

To John Berg,
Thank you also for your reply. Apologies for not understanding but I can’t make out where you stand with regard to my question. Could you clarify?

I would really like to understand how your view works in a moral sense because I don’t get it yet.

Just to clear up one point, I certainly have no desire to invade private property where I am not welcome. In the country in which I am an immigrant I go to private offices which welcome my labour and private shops which welcome my custom. I rent my own private accommodation. I am not breaking into anyone’s house.

Also, as Russ pointed out above, the analogy of my house, my country is flawed in that you do not own the whole country. If you did, of course, you have the right to determine what happens there. But if we both own apartments in the same building, should you be allowed to determine who I bring to my apartment? Unless you really own the whole building I don’t think so.

John Berg
Oct 10 2010 at 2:06am

Extending my answer to Simon C.

It occurs to me that offering blind reciprocity may obligate the US to extend freedom of access to a religion that conceals a political system designed to gain territory stealthly by replacing the Constitution with an embedded legal system and a specified slowly increasing jurisdiction.

It may be possible to exclude such a stealth legal system with a properly designed entrance oath or naturalization oath which offers clearly defined statements that emphasize a priori actions that subsequently contradict with the US Constitution.

John Berg

John Berg

Simon C
Oct 10 2010 at 2:41am

To John Berg
I really appreciate your extended answer. Unfortunately I cannot understand how to interpret what you wrote as an answer to my question. Maybe the way we think about the issues is just too different to have a dialogue?

John Berg
Oct 10 2010 at 6:54am

To Simon C and others.

Perhaps this will help.

My future status is the result of my own doing and accomplishments. I have no sense of predestination or community ownership. I believe in private property. My efforts will improve my fortune and improve the world that I will leave for my children. My rights are individual rights granted not by government but by God and ensured by a written document that we all can read and interpret.
Those here with citizenship establish the rules for others to naturalize and I will prefer others gaining citizenship to commit to adding their benefits to the pool of benefits being accumulated in this country rather than sending benefits back to somewhere else. My heritage is the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, the accumulated history of the US, and the vast literature of English language, including all literature translated into English.

When I say, “God bless America,” I sincerely mean it.

John Berg

Oct 10 2010 at 8:56pm

This was very interesting.

The general trend, in many European countries as well as the US, seems to be one of tightening immigration policies in the wake of the recent financial crisis.

I thought that your arguments stripped away the economic etc. reasons usually given for these kinds of policies. But I also think that it revealed – and you didn’t discuss this in the context of culture – that these arguments probably aren’t the fundamental ones.

For any society to achieve some level of cohesion, there needs to be some sense of “us”: who we are, what defines us, what values guide our actions and so on. But this concept of “us” implicitly (and sometimes very explicitly!) necessitates there being a “them” – the other tribe(s).

This has nothing to do with racism I think (except in the sense that it is much easier to identify people who look differently to “us” as “them”).

I think to varying degrees, this division is inherent in every society, and it is pretty much impossible to overcome.

Alexander Pronozin
Oct 11 2010 at 1:32am

Many people do not like aliens. And antiimmigration sentiments in many times are not more than the exhibition of xenophobia. Just talk to “common” people, who are exempt from sofisticated reasoning derived from economics classes.

These common people provide social demand for those armed with science to generate scientistic arguments.

John Berg
Oct 11 2010 at 2:31am

In what country have “guest workers” proven to be a success?

John Berg

Oct 11 2010 at 2:40am


I have been studying historical anti-immigration writings in the US starting with the Alien & Sedition Acts through the Know-Nothing/American parties of the mid 19th Century to the Asiatic Exclusion leagues of the early 20th Centruy.

The arguments against immigration have always been the same ones mentioned in the podcast, and they have always been proven wrong over time.

I’m glad my unskilled Norwegian and Czech speaking great-grandparents came to the US, to spawn dozens of university educated progeny. I am glad they had a chance to come without today’s insane restrictions.

Oct 13 2010 at 12:07am

This podcast was a little strange in that it argues for immigration…which is in fact LEGAL already. Oh, I supposed they want more legal immigration, which is fine, but its not as if we are being stingy with immigration in the US. Percentage foreign-born is already quite high and illegals are not exactly prosecuted.

The debate about culture was really sophomoric, equating Shakespeare with culture. Culture is of course defined as “shared understandings” and not artistic products. It could be a shared understanding that you cannot slaughter goats in front of your own home. Or that female children should be educated. Or that drivers should be polite and not honk at each other. Or that elections should be fair and results accepted. Culture can be far more valuable than just laws – try dropping the US Constitution and laws on Mexico and see if you re-create the USA – you won’t. The way to allow the culture to remain strong and adapt over time, is to limit immigration over time, and to insure diversity of immigration. I am not sure that opening the borders all at once would allow that.

There is also a problem with all of the work where they show that legal immigrants don’t use the welfare system or pay more taxes than average in that the current system creates selection bias: who can fill in the forms and get over legally? Obviously, the doctor from India can figure out how to immigrate, but perhaps not the bicycle tire repair man. I’d like to see studies based on Mexican illegal immigration alone, as that would more likely replicate what a free-for-all immigration policy would be like.

Also, just as an aside, when I was applying for an immigration visa for my foreign-born wife, I had to sign an affidavit that I would be personally accountable for any welfare payments to her made until I died. The law is there. I wonder if that affects the numbers…probably not as I doubt the law is enforced.

I am for more legal immigration, making it easier to immigrate, and for reform of the current system, but this podcast seemed to be mainly about setting up straw men and knockin’ em down.

Oct 13 2010 at 12:16am

“but I do see a lot of Hispanics on street corners selling candy, fruit, flowers or standing in the parking lots of home depot to be offered work from those who need odd jobs performed. They are asking for work, but never asking for a handout.”

By the way, you have no idea if these cash businesses are reported on their income or not. They could be in section 8 housing, food stamps, S-CHIP, even while they should not be because of the income from their jobs.

So, I would be very cautious to claim that just because an immigrant (or anyone really) has a cash-paying job, they are not also sneaking hand-outs. Its true that at least they have a work ethic though.

Oct 13 2010 at 9:49pm

@Econotarian — Actually, this was the worst Econtalk podcast ever. And though I haven’t been listening from the beginning, I have gone back and listened to them all. But this one was like listening to NPR or an Obama speech — it went off the rails at the first curve and continued at length to pile one sophomorism on another, all with no connection to reality.

That first curve was the assertion that one needs to allow immigrants in because to not do so is to do them harm — as demonstrated by the harm experienced by a US CITIZEN who is denied reentry from Haiti! This is akin to the harm I experience by being denied access to George Soros’ bank account. US Citizenship is a scarce good, and denying it to folks without a right to it is just self-interested good sense.

It took Caplan to remind Roberts that the 5% loss of income discussed by Borjas was the result of immigration at ~1M/yr. The econlib article by Borjas linked to above quotes an estimate of 3-4% for every 10% increase in competitors.

@Russ Roberts — If you want to hire a Mexican to mow you lawn you are free to locate your lawn in Mexico. And, yes, the citizens of this country do own it. There are other forms of property rights than private personal. And there are legal processes by which we could sell property held in common and distribute shares. Alaskans get a yearly check, no?

Tom K
Oct 14 2010 at 12:08pm

Concerning policies in Portland that restrict development…my understanding (from a tour guide in Portland) is that massive amounts of farm land were being lost to development, and this land with volcanically rich soil was very well suited for the growth of hops (for beer) and fruit.

The brewpubs in Oregon particularly benefit from the wide variety of locally grown hops. There is also substantial fruit production near Mount Hood.

So policies were implemented that greatly restricted growth in those areas to protect that part of their culture. Also, the original I-5 was closed (!!) and moved across the Columbia river. The old I-5 land was turned into public recreation area.

I’m not going to argue whether these restrictions and development were good or bad. I personally think that these policies resulted in a better Portland (one of my favorite cities) and a better Oregon and that the powers that be felt it important to preserve that particular quality of life.

Oct 17 2010 at 6:08pm

Best econtalk ever!

Oct 17 2010 at 10:28pm

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for rudeness. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.–Econlib Ed.]

David M Brooks
Oct 18 2010 at 10:12pm

Many fallacious arguments here, it seems that many libertarians are ideologically blinded to the real world consequences for the people of America of unlimited open immigration particularly in today’s economic, social, and political situations. I for one would like a Tannehillian/David Friedman utopia: But open-borders in practice will move us deeper into the arms of the welfare state with so many more needy recipients dropped on our doors.

Another view from a former econtalk guest [Source:

Q & A session with Milton Friedman at the 18th Annual Institute for Liberty and Policy Analysis (ISIL) World Libertarian Conference, August 20-22, 1999, in San Jose, Costa Rica. Co-sponsors: The Mackinac Center for Public Policy; the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.

Q: Dr. Friedman should the U.S.A. open its borders to all immigrants? What is your opinion on that?

A: Unfortunately no. You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state.

Q: Do you oppose a unilateral reduction of tariffs and if not how can you oppose open immigration until the welfare state is eliminated?

A: I am in favor of the unilateral reduction of tariffs, but the movement of goods is a substitute for the movement of people. As long as you have a welfare state, I do not believe you can have a unilateral open immigration. I would like to see a world in which you could have open immigration, but stop kidding yourselves. On the other hand, the welfare state does not prevent unilateral free trade. I believe that they are in different categories.

Q: Instead of a green card [resident alien status], can the USA issue a blue card which does not give welfare?

A: If you could do that, that would be fine. But I don’t believe you can do that. It’s not only that it is not politically feasible, I don’t think that it is desirable to have two classes of citizens in a society. We want a free society. We want a society in which every individual is treated as an end in themselves. We don’t want a society in which some people are in there under blue conditions, others are in there under red conditions, others are in there under black conditions. We want a free society. So I don’t believe such ….

I haven’t really ever thought of that system. It’s a new question. I very rarely get a new question, but I must admit that’s a new question for me. And I haven’t really thought about it a great deal, but my initial reaction is that it’s a very undesirable proposal.

As far as Caplan’s offer that benefits could be restricted for immigrants, which is something that he said he wouldn’t want to do; that’s been tried for illegals only, by the voters of California in Proposition 187, and the open-borders politicians and courts killed it. It is amazing that two academics very interested in immigration seem unaware of Proposition 187 and the implications of its being ruled un-Constitutional by a Federal court. If a Caplan-type proposal were ever presented to the American public, “Open the borders and we’ll restrict the new immigrants’ benefits” it should be regarded as a “bait-and-switch.” As soon as it was too late, and we have a billion poor people in our streets, we would see wall-to-wall coverage of sick babies denied treatment, starving children, a mother and her 12 children living on the streets…shame on America! There will marches, there will be singing, there will be heart-wrenching testimony before Congress.

In reality restrictions on benefits are being ignored or worked-around now. For example Clinton and Bush brought tens of thousands of Somalians to the US legally. Many were put in Georgia, after using up their five-year “lifetime” benefits there, they sent out scout teams to relocate, looking for locations with high social/welfare benefits, which they found in Lewiston Maine. Lewiston’s welfare expense doubled. They’ve brought other social problems. And they are still only a small fraction of the population.

The YouTube video “Gumballs” illustrates graphically that it is impossible for mass third world immigration to ameliorate their economic situations–the only possibility for them to improve is where they live.

Other notes: Caplan says:

In terms of fiscal effect–illegal immigrants are often the best, because they often pay taxes on things they are never going to get any benefit from. Their employers contribute. Not only are there benefits they are never going to get, but often illegal immigrants are too frightened of getting caught to apply for benefits that Americans would.

That what Caplan thinks…the reality is better illustrated by Obama’s “Aunt Zeituni,” who was ordered deported in 2004, was given free hospital care, a free place to live, a pension, and the right to stay in 2010, and shares Caplan’s views that Americans don’t own America, and it is our duty to allow anyone who wants come here to come, take care of them, and give them citizenship. See WBZ TV interview in three segments here:

Aunt Zeituni: ‘Country Is Owned By Almighty God’
President Obama’s Aunt Speaks Exclusively With WBZ-TV


Flip side of that: Because they are illegal, a lot of their economic activity takes place in maybe underground activity, where maybe cash business, very little taxes paid by anybody. Still end up paying things like sales taxes and all indirect taxes. Property taxes, if renting someone is indirectly doing that.

Actually more and more illegals are filing income tax returns, using ITNs set up just for them, so that they can get refunds; they get the child tax credit (even for Mexican dependents) and if married to somone with a valid SS# the Making Work Pay credit.

Also Mexicans with a valid SS# can, and many do, rent out their SS#s to working illegals, and get the Earned Income Tax Credit as well the child tax credit. These are “refundable” credits, ie the Treasury sends “refund” checks even if there no tax was due or even withheld.

In addition many immigrants, both legal and illegal, live cheaply and repatriate the bulk of their earnings to their relatives, living 20 people to a house, so they may pay little in sales taxes, or other “indirect” taxes.

The argument that immigrants have less crime than native born Americans is also disingenuous. First, some native-born populations have very high crime rates, being under an average that includes high and low crime populations does not mean that they are going to lower crime, on the contrary they mean more crime. Second, those “native-born” include the criminal offspring of immigrants, many from Mexico and other third world nations, are engaged in a variety of criminal activities, for which the police are ill equipted to detect because of cultural and language barriers. Alien street gangs rule the streets from LA to Hartford.

Besides the welfare problems mentioned above that Somali immigrants have brought to Lewiston Maine, there is also crime. See

Police investigate Somali attacks
By Mark LaFlamme, Staff Writer Lewiston Sun-Journal
Published Dec 17, 2009
LEWISTON — In the early evening on the first day of summer, a large group of Somali boys approached a woman on the corner of Ash and Pierce streets. According to police reports, they intimidated the woman and slapped her in the back of the head before scattering into the downtown.

Five days later, shortly after midnight..SNIP

Later that night, a woman in her late 60s was beaten by a group of Somali boys and relieved of cash while walking in Kennedy Park.

Five nights later, another man was jumped by a group of similar description. He resisted the gang and was beaten badly. He required surgery.

Throughout the summer, similar reports have come into the Police Department. Witnesses and investigators say swarms of Somali boys, some as young as 8, others in their late teens, overwhelm solitary victims through sheer numbers.


Note that many of those Somali youth smashing-up Lewistion’s white citizens are young enough to be also legal citizens, ie they are native-born and will plop in the “native-born” crime bucket if they ever get caught, the bucket that Caplan says proves Americans are more criminal than aliens.

There’s a lot more wrong with Caplan’s arguments, and maybe I’ll take a second bite at them. My offer, we privatize the streets, all welfare,all education, medical services, security services and justice services, etc., then we can give open borders a try. Until then Caplan’s schemes are an open door to disaster for the vast majority of America’s present population.

[Comment edited for length; broken link fixed; link added–Econlib Ed.]

Oct 19 2010 at 8:50pm

My initial enjoyment of this podcast was suddenly dashed by Caplan’s snide aside about our last president. It’s time for victims of Bush derangement syndrome like him to put aside their anger, particularly if they want their views about anything to be taken seriously.

First World Country
Oct 20 2010 at 1:52am


the standard of living in America is very much higher than elsewhere in the world. Not all of that results from innovation/trade/hard_work but it also results from bullying other countries.

I argue that people living in America have to work less hard for their standard of living than those living outside. This makes the whole thing an in-group/out-group argument. If you make the border permeable, you’re taking away the advantage of those on the inside.

1) bullying seems to be a negative term; this is not meant as a value judgement on my part, the parents have worked for it (fought wars, whatever), so why shouldn’t they pass it on?

2) this argument is a variation on “a country is private property”

3) I cannot support this argument with facts, but in an emotional debate this may not make it less of a sentiment

4) I’m not in America (but similar arguments could be made for my country)

Comments are closed.


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Podcast Episode Highlights
0:36Intro. [Recording date: September 27, 2010.] Immigration, lively topic. In general, as with all guests, not everything that Bryan says that I leave unchallenged is true; and not everything Bryan says that I leave unchallenged do I agree with. A lot of respect for you out there in the listening audience; sometimes have to let things go because we only have an hour. Rely on your intelligence and natural skepticism not to believe everything you hear. Could apply today in many ways. Bryan: It could, but it's not really relevant. Learned about Bryan's views on immigration from a presentation he did here at George Mason University, in front of the GM Economic Society; available on video. Doesn't go much challenged there till the end, when there is a Question and Answer (Q&A); hope more interactive here. Bryan, you start your video presentation, speech, and want to start here with an interesting thought experiment. Lay it out. Suppose that moved by the plight of Haitians after the earthquake, you decided to troop down there to do Haitian relief work. You have off for two weeks, about to go home; when you go up to the desk at the airport, the person says: Sorry, you are not authorized to return. Strange; so you go talk to the U.S. representative, and he says: That's right--you can't come back. You: Why not? Representative: U.S. government does not have to answer questions; we don't give reasons. Point: almost everyone thinks it would be wrong for the U.S. government to deny the right to return. My question is: Why? Seems like it would be a terrible thing to do to a person. In Haiti, poverty is terrible; even if you could find a job, probably worse than in United; dangerous place, high death rates; isolation--interesting things to do there, but you might want to see some other parts of the world, too. Furthermore, you might think the whole problem of being stuck in Haiti is that your family and friends are here: slight variant on thought-experiment--imagine you go down to Haiti to visit with your friends and family and you are all denied readmission to the United States. Think it would be worse than just being stuck on your own--if I were stuck there with my family and they said I couldn't return but my kids could, I'd say please return my kids. Seems like awful harm to inflict on a person to prevent them from moving to the United States; but almost everybody thinks it's okay for the U.S. government to do it. Not saying strict immigration is wrong. Just saying there is a presumption against it. Not the kind of thing you can just do and say: I don't have any reasons; why should I have any reasons? Kind of thing where you do need reasons. Then in the rest of the talk I consider the main reasons people have offered for why it is okay to prevent people moving from Haiti to the United States, even though it seems like a really bad thing to do.
4:23At least four objections raised in the talk; I'm going to add one more. Let's lay them out. Trying to find arguments against immigration that are commonly believed that are legitimate arguments, and Bryan's going to try to shoot them all down. In particular, arguments that are so strong they overcome this presumption that it's wrong to do this to someone. First: need immigration restrictions in order to protect Americans from poverty. Immigrants, when they come in, lower American wages, harmful to people already here. Probably the most important one for most people. Second: immigration restrictions are necessary to protect the American taxpayer from abuse of the welfare state. People come here not to work but to live off the rest of us. Third: need immigration restrictions to protect American culture. Effects of people who don't speak English. Last: immigrants are going to damage our politics; are going to take a country that is relatively free and prosperous and by voting are going to turn the United States into the kind of country they got away from. Add two more: One, congestion issue. Going to be congestion in areas we don't price stuff, sudden increase in population from any source--immigration being the most plausible--would lead to harm for people already here. Other would be crime. Didn't warn Bryan about. Also hear that the immigrants who come here are importing criminals. Four most legitimate objections. We're talking about open immigration here, not the current level. Not going to get into issue of people who are already here, illegally, and what should be done about that fact. We are talking about what should be the U.S. policy toward people who don't live here now and would like to live here.
7:07Start with the financial argument: if we let in immigrants, it's going to make us poorer because they are going to lower the wages of those already here. For each of these arguments, going to do two things. First, going to say the complaints are either wrong or overstated. Secondly, going to say: suppose we accepted the arguments completely at face value; is there any cheaper way we could handle the problem other than telling people they just can't come here? Starting point: presumption immigration restrictions wrong. Once you come up with a reason, restrictions have to be among the cheaper and more humane ways of doing it; if there's some way of handling the same problem that costs less and does less to injure people, seems like that's the right road to go down. Before we get started, take a deep breath. Some of you may be thinking it's a stupid thought experiment. Obviously, if you are already a citizen you should be allowed to come back. It would be so unfair because you don't have the expectation you won't be allowed. One way to think about it to make the thought experiment even more dramatic: suppose you are a welfare recipient who goes to Haiti to volunteer and help. Would it be good if you were returning if you were a welfare recipient? What about: if you came back, it would affect people whose skills were like yours? Let's focus on the economics and see where it goes. Starting with the financial arguments: at first pass, you say this case is slam dunk against immigration. Americans suffer from immigration: you have a whole bunch of supply of other people; this is going to increase the supply of labor, which will reduce wages. QED. What can we say about this? Can go to the actual estimates of what the effect is. Contentious issue; go to the most anti-immigration of all the respectable researchers in this area, George Borjas. Go to his labor economics textbook, his estimate for the long-run effects on the wages of American high school dropouts of all recent decades is that it's reduced their wages by about 5 percentage points. Not 50%. 5.0%. Seems small to justify keeping a whole lot of people from coming to the United States. Especially when you take a look at the rest of his table and see the effect for the average American wage is much smaller. And some American workers gain. Devil's advocate: The Borjas study is of a particular class of Americans who are commonly worried about as competing with workers. Some people say it's okay to let in the right kind of immigrant--which is Borjas's position--he's okay with letting in highly educated workers, who supposedly bring in more than they take away. I think they do contribute, but everybody contributes. This effect of 5% isn't on every American, but on high school dropouts, a small portion of the U.S. population, which we should be empathetic toward, but that's the effect. So just in terms of the direct wage effects, it's quite a bit less than you think. Other researchers have redone Borjas's work with estimates more favorable to immigration. Other economists have said all this is assuming that immigrants basically have the same skills as Americans--that the skills Mexicans or Haitians would have are the same as Americans would have. In fact, they don't. Immigrants typically are better at what are called non-language jobs that don't require such great knowledge of English. Americans have an advantage in these kinds of jobs. Result you get if you re-do Borjas's approach but allow for this seemingly obvious fact that immigrants and natives have different skills, you wind up getting not only a smaller effect on American wages, you end up getting a positive effect. Basically, Americans go and specialize in areas where Americans have what economists call comparative advantage. Result, just like in other areas of trade: people specialize and trade and they all get richer. Technical way to think about this in terms of economics is that because those people's skills are different from people here already, their skills are complementary--they enhance our productivity rather than hurting us. So, the labor market effect not nearly as clear as people think. Reasonable range of estimates--actually very plausible work finding a positive effect on American wages; the harshest critics come up with a very mild negative effect. Woefully inadequate to say we are going to consign large numbers of people to countries where they earn a dollar a day. This doesn't consider all the effects on Americans. How about American employers, who seem to gain from immigration? Stockholders, investors? Many more people who effectively employers or capitalists than we realize--anyone who owns a retirement account is one, anyone who owns stock--many people are in this group of people who are benefiting. Anyone who employs personal services--if you ever plan on being elderly and maybe wanting someone to help you out. And the final one--seems particularly relevant today--the effect on real estate. Immigrants require housing, and when they come here they raise the demand for housing, which means real estate prices increase. While there are of course some Americans who don't own any real estate, who suffer from this, on average, American real estate is owned by Americans. So immigrants wind up increasing the wealth of any American who owns real estate. People in Los Angeles complaining about immigration and how awful immigrants are--hmmm? What would happen if we were to expel everyone who came over from Mexico in the last 20 years? Probably would be a massive decline in real estate values. Almost all would be suffered by Americans.
14:34Could be that the estimates by Borjas--you've identified him as the most respectable critic of immigration; I think that's true--he'd certainly say it was true. He, by the way, is an immigrant, born in Cuba. Could be he's misestimated and effects are larger. Or might just say these are only estimates for this moderate range that we've seen. What if we had much more immigration? He is evaluating the impact of a limited amount of immigration. What's your thought on that? In order for immigration restrictions to be justified, not only would you have to identify a real problem, but you'd also have to show immigration restrictions were a cost-effective way of handling the problem. Here, I say there is obviously a cheaper and more humane way of handling whatever financial harm happens to Americans: to either charge an entry fee--so in order for an immigrant to come they'd have to pay some cash amount up front and use that entry fee to compensate Americans that lose. Not literally--you couldn't do that. That would be very imperfect. Depending upon how generous it was, it could be imperfect in two ways. Could be we end up compensating some people who actually gain--they also get a government check. Obvious places to start: earned income tax credit. Or, you could just charge a surtax to immigrants: you can come here, but you have to pay 10 percentage points higher on your income tax; and then we are going to take that money and compensate Americans who have lost. Both of these are ways of compensating Americans who have lost but which preserve the option to come here. I think it's pretty unfair, but it's vastly less unfair than to tell someone you can't come here at all. If I were stuck in Haiti, I'd rather have someone say you can return but you have to pay 10 extra percentage points on your income tax than you are not allowed to return for any reason. Different argument: to me a more humane policy isn't to charge an entry fee or a surtax. Any even more humane policy would be to improve the productivity of those high school dropouts you are talking about. For example, if we said technology, labor-saving devices of various kinds--a dishwasher, washing machine--when they came out made some people-skills less in demand. The Internet is reducing the demand for education, for college professors. You would never argue--I don't think most people would argue--that because labor-saving devices are hard on people who have limited skills, who used to be employed as people who washed dishes or clothing, therefore we shouldn't allow people to create the devices. Think the argument would be: let's encourage people to get those skills. Which it will. One of the implications of this is it will encourage people to stay in high school longer. Sure. Just lecturing on this today, and someone said: Wouldn't these subsidies encourage more people to drop out of high school? Sure. If you really want to discourage people from dropping out of high school, let in more immigrants. Record for government-created job-training programs is not very good. Case for just giving people money rather than subsidizing job-training is not so good. The wage argument--don't think the average person worried about immigration is worried about their own financial well-being through competition. Though you could be, Bryan. Throw this out at you: Easy for you to say, Bryan. You have tenure. Not really in competition with any of the immigrants we are talking about, and therefore you are not allowed to talk about it. You are not self-interested in the way everyone else is. This argument made by people who have either never been on campus or remarkably unperceptive. If there is any industry in the United States that does face open immigration and full competition from every worker in the world, it's academic. Right now, there's a loophole that makes it possible for universities to hire any professor from anywhere on earth. Russ and I are competing with them; they are in our department with us. If they were not allowed in, Russ and I would possibly be at better schools, earning higher wages. We are people who are suffering more than almost anyone because on the one hand we are in an industry where there are effectively open borders; and yet, we aren't getting much of the consumption benefits from having open immigration in all the areas where we are consumers. University professors strangely suffer more than anyone. Cue the violin music. Poignant observation. Do you like having them as colleagues? Do they make your life better, enhance our students' knowledge? Yes. In favor of open immigration, certainly at the Ph.D. level, medicine, from every level of skill. Half my friends were born in other countries; would rather have them as friends than having my wages be higher. As a matter of the financial effect on me, I am one of the biggest losers from immigration right now. Possibly. Can hear the tears of sympathy throughout the Internet.
21:23Second one, worrisome to many people: A lot of people come here and are net takers of tax money, through welfare programs or other things that are going on in our society. Immigrants coming here to abuse the welfare state. Has some initial credibility. If you take a look at how much money you can get for free from the U.S. government, it is considerably higher than what hardworking people elsewhere. They can make more money here doing nothing than by the sweat of their brow in, say, Bangladesh. However, there are a few problems with this. Again, going to the negative respectable estimates of whether or not immigrants pay more taxes than they receive in services, only mildly negative. And there are actually other estimates, also respectable, that get the opposite effect, saying that immigrants are net taxpayers--receive less in services than they pay in taxes. If you are incredulous about this, remember: a lot of what government does is what economists call non-rival. Government can provide the service to a very large number of people for about the same cost as they can provide it to a very small number of people. Most obvious case is something like nuclear deterrents. If you double the population of the United States, we don't need any more nuclear deterrents in order to deter an attack on our population. A lot of things are like this. But most things are not. Things like direct welfare; free education; free health care. The two big ones are defense and debt. When you increase the immigrant population, you are averaging the debt and the interest that has to be paid on that debt over a larger population. Social security. One common misconception about the welfare state that makes people think immigrants are worse than they are, is that we imagine that the welfare state is mainly about helping the poor. We take a look and say, there are all these poor immigrants coming here, so obviously it's going to be a net drain. Factually wrong. Take a look at the numbers on the budget. While the poor do get a fair amount, maybe 10%, of the Federal budget, they are a very distant runner-up against the group that actually gets the biggest part, which is the elderly. Social Security and Medicare are a much bigger deal than Medicaid, Food Stamps, housing vouchers, etc. Often immigrants tend to be poor; especially those who can't legally come here tend to be poor; they often tend to be young. Which means they will not only be paying taxes into our system for a very long time, but on top of that their home country has also often paid for their education. When you put this all together, basically, as you raise the percentage of government spending up to a plausible amount that is nonrival, then you wind up actually concluding that immigrants are net taxpayers. At the Federal level, they almost certainly are. The Federal government mostly handles the payments for the elderly. At the State level, more likely to be true that immigrants are a net drain, which then creates the illusion that immigrants are a drain overall. Really what's going on when Californian taxpayers complain about immigration is that they are trying to improve the fiscal situation of California, but worsening the situation of the Federal government. If you go and add up all the effects together, much more favorable to immigrants. In terms of fiscal effect--illegal immigrants are often the best, because they often pay taxes on things they are never going to get any benefit from. Their employers contribute. Not only are there benefits they are never going to get, but often illegal immigrants are too frightened of getting caught to apply for benefits that Americans would. Flip side of that: Because they are illegal, a lot of their economic activity takes place in maybe underground activity, where maybe cash business, very little taxes paid by anybody. Still end up paying things like sales taxes and all indirect taxes. Property taxes, if renting someone is indirectly doing that. How illegal? Totally outside; or illegally work in an illegal job. Example of the young worker who is not going to be getting Social Security for a long time, or perhaps will never get it--what people worry about is situation where a person comes here, doesn't speak English, takes a very low-paying job, a job that many Americans would not be eager to do; perhaps creates an economic benefit for the rest of us, our first story; but then they get married and have kids. They are still young, but they have kids, and their kids are American citizens as a result. And schools are going to have to be built to educate them; they show up at the emergency room of the hospital, government requires hospitals care for them and are not allowed to turn anyone away. As a result, those costs all get born by non-immigrants. Thoughts? True for Americans, too. Only difference is for an immigrant, you start off 20 years and down the line. For any American, you pay for that person's education; for an immigrant you get an adult who starts working and then you wind up getting the stream of taxes and the burdens that go from 20 onwards, which is a better stream than you'd get from an American. Part of this is an empirical question. Many immigrants hold more than one job. Perception that most immigrants come here and don't work, which is not true. Side by side: they are taking our jobs and they don't work. Other, more humane argument: a free public school system is a bad program. For everybody. Doesn't work very well; incentives are lousy. If we are going to have a choice, let's get the free ride out of the system for everybody. Usually when I'm trying to convince people to have open borders, they don't want to add in public education on top of that. One controversial thing at a time. If you are concerned about immigrants using the welfare state or their kids getting educated at taxpayer expense, there is a much cheaper, more humane solution: You could say immigrants are not eligible to get these benefits, either not eligible or never eligible in perpetuity; or not eligible for 5 years or 10 years. No reason to keep people out. Could let people come here but say you have to pay taxes and you can't collect benefits for a certain period of time. Would that be Constitutional? Don't see why not, since they are not citizens.
30:21Let's get practical. In your talk you mentioned there might be a billion people in the world who earn a dollar a day or less. Paul Collier podcast. A billion people who would like to be here. Not all will want to come here tomorrow. Don't speak the language. They do have friends. May like where they live. Might not be a billion, but a big number. Let's say they come here. Give them a 5-year moratorium--your humane solution. They come here, can't get a job, apply for food stamps, and other forms of public assistance and are told they can't have that for 5 years. What do we do now? Do we ship them back? March them to the border? Rely on private charity to help them? How are we going to enforce this more humane solution? The most obvious way of doing it, which is not what I favor so much as what I will offer to people to change their minds, convincing them that what we have is much worse, is tell them you can't come until you have got a job lined up. That actually already is part of current immigration law, but to imagine expanding that. Not really part of the actual system we have, legal and illegal. Having spoken to a contractor in confidence about the world he lives in, his workers come across the border, pay a fee, a coyote--somebody really good at fooling the border guards, interesting world, lot of specialization--come here and expect to go work for him or people like him. They have a network of people who have already come here; they don't have a job lined up, but they have the expectation of a job, and in those situations, if it doesn't turn out to be true they go back, because they don't want to live here. They are going to be sending money back home, not necessarily coming here to establish themselves. Don't know how you'd actually verify that--how would you prove you have a job lined up? Number 2: It would certainly lead to all kinds of lying and deception. Number 3: If it doesn't, maybe just keeps people out through this requirement. Cheaper and more humane. My first choice would be to say you are free to come and we'll see what happens. How you verify this: not hard if you have sufficiently high fines for fraud. If an employer signs something saying you are his worker. If he gets fired after two weeks, what are you going to do with him? Right now there are many guest worker programs where you do have to go home or find another job in that period. Right now within the United States we already have open borders between the 50 united States. Why would anyone keep living in Kansas when he could live in New York City? Isn't New York City so much more interesting? Some say no. Fair to bet there are more people in Kansas who think NYC is more interesting than Kansas than people who live in NYC who think living in Kansas more interesting than living in NYC. Different populations. Market forces at work that allow us to have free mobility in the United States without chaos. Rents and real estate prices adjust. If you want to live in Manhattan, you have to pay an arm and a leg. Kansas almost free. Secondly, in areas where people really want to live, wages are lower relative to cost of living than they'd otherwise be. High money wages in NYC, but not relative to the cost of living. Tim Harford's book. This is the market force that would also keep a billion people from showing up right away. When a large increase in low-skill population happens, there will be a large increase in rents and a large decline in wages for low skilled workers. Reason to wait. Original waves of Soviet immigrants going to Israel: initial problem, a lot of people showing up at once. Peak load problem, word gets back to Russia that things in Israel aren't really as good as they originally heard, and people wait. Slows it down. Russia empties and Israel gets its Jews.
36:38Going to U.S. history, which we haven't talked about: there were periods in the United States when there was close to open immigration. Little reading; all the issues we talk about, people worried about then also. Culture issue, turn to next. In the case of St. Louis, a lot of German immigrants. In the late 19th century, they established their own schools, taught in German. A lot of people wrote about it: these people are never going to assimilate, they are going to ruin our country because they are living in their own world, not really Americans. Turned out to be false. Did assimilate. Brewed beer, good for beer-drinkers everywhere. What's the standard argument? The one that makes the most sense to the most people is: These people are not learning English. Bothers people the most. Even Samuel Huntington, one of the people most concerned, admit that 90% of second generation Mexican immigrants speak fluent English. The kids. Tries to argue it's still a big problem. Don't even understand what the problem is. Is the worry that if you are going down the street and you are heading into a fire, dangerous situation, and the immigrant is yelling at you in his native language? Maybe people are worried their children will live under Spanish--like living under Communism. Market forces give people a strong incentive to learn the language of the country they are in. Even in the case of Spanish, where the case is stronger that there is a subculture where you don't need to learn English, for any other language hard to make the case at all. Then, people worry it's a broader cultural thing. Going to talk about politics separately. Sticking with the language issue: part of the reason people are concerned is the state government requires certain bilingual adjustments. Never understood the argument for that, to force school districts to provide second language instruction seems very bizarre. That's one of the reasons people do resent or worry about a second language issue. For all the bilingual problems, 90% of second generation Mexicans do learn English. Hasn't done that much harm. If we allowed something closer to open borders, maybe it wouldn't be 90%. There'd be economies of scale and a subculture that would be all in Spanish. Although there would also be so many new cultures coming, what would be the lingua franca? "Lingua franca"--French language--a strange phrase. English already is the lingua franca all over the world. For broader culture, kids' names; don't appreciate baseball. Need to preserve French culture, but culture seems to be so low down in American priorities that it's odd--like the immigrants are not going to know about TV shows like "Friends," or not going to appreciate "Seinfeld." Baffled as to what kind of culture Americans do know that immigrants don't know. Not like most Americans know enough about European culture to name three operas of Wagner off the top of their heads. What are immigrants supposed to know that they don't? Shakespeare. Comedies, tragedies. Take the complaint at face value and see if there is a cheaper and more way of dealing with the culture problem than just telling people they can't come here. How about we require English fluency to come into the country? Give a test; if you pass, you can come in. Will be some corruption, not that big of a problem. Broader culture? Fine, give a test of broader cultural literacy. That's not the issue. The worry is there would be too much Mexican food, Mexican music. Happen to like both, but other people don't. Worry is our culture will be changed. Making fun od Seinfeld as low-brow culture. Worry, which I see as a plus, is somehow the mix, the American stew, would be dominated by certain cultures. Market process. The French, Canadians, do protect their domestic movie industries and other forms of so-called culture from foreign influence. Strange idea, maybe just a form of special-interest rent seeking; but people do worry about this. What's the most popular American food? Chinese food? sushi? pizza? What are the states in the United States we think of as having really good culture? New York, California. Kansas--to our Kansas listeners, Bryan loves Kansas, many Kansas listeners, know they are listening; it's a fine place with lots of culture. Less diverse as California or New York. If you look at places with the most culture in the United States, they are clearly places with a high proportion of foreign-born in the culture. If you look at the states with the lowest foreign-born percentage in the population, ones no one would claim are exception in culture--places like the Dakotas. May say California and New York would have great culture even if there were no immigrants. Hard to say, except for the case of food, where it's absolutely clear it's the immigrants who cause it. Do you really want to eat the local fare of the Dakotas? Suspect I wouldn't like it as much as what is available to me in a ten-minute drive from me in Fairfax, high-immigrant area.
45:26Politics. What's the worry there? This is an argument that has the most appeal to libertarians and probably conservatives as well. The story is: we love you immigrants and maybe all these other arguments are exaggerated, but there's one problem with you, and that is you come from countries that aren't free; and that probably means you don't like freedom. And if you come here and start voting you are going to start voting against freedom, and you are going to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Or, you are poor and you are going to vote for redistribution, vote for the welfare state. First of all, case where there seems to be a cheaper and more humane alternative again, which is to say you can come here but you can't vote. Secondly, there is the question of how hell-bent immigrants are on turning the United States into Mexico or Congo. May be that their opinions are moderately less pro-freedom than people who grew up here; seems unlikely this is that big a deal for them. Can count on what psychologists call status-quo bias: people tend to think that whatever is, is okay--which is one of the reasons it's so hard to get people to change their minds about immigration. Their reaction is not likely to be they've got to change things radically to how they are back home; more likely to be that's how things are here. Here seems okay, good enough for me. Greatly tones it down. Recent American politics--not clear how in love with liberty the typical American voter is anyway. On the welfare state point specifically, here's there's actually some very good evidence that immigrants do something good for liberty, that hurts the welfare state. If you look at countries that have the most generous welfare states, they generally are ones that are ethnically homogeneous, ones where people see themselves as being one identical people. Scandinavian countries--though changing in recent years. But everyone in Denmark sees we're all Danes here. People don't mind taking care of their own. Second, since you trust your own kind, much less likely to feel they are ripping you off. Do you think Europe, which has a lot more immigration lately, has become more heterogeneous--do you think their welfare state is becoming smaller? Will take the Austrian position and say smaller than it otherwise would have been. Scandinavia is curtailing the welfare state. Unlike a Dane or a Swede who would never think of taking money from the government unless he absolutely needed it, an Iraqi or Somali immigrant very well might. This is a well-established pattern around the world: the more homogeneous a country, the bigger welfare state it tends to have. Standard explanation of why we have a smaller welfare state than Europe--the American nation is a nation of immigrants. Even among populations we don't think of as immigrants, like black, different groups who are seen as being different groups. Some would say the real reason we don't have a welfare state is because of prejudice. Something to that. But in terms of the effect on our politics, good effect. If you are a libertarian or conservative who thinks the welfare state tends to be too big, there is something you can do to help: let in more immigrants so that natives feel like they are getting ripped off and don't like it any more. Circular. True; but whether it works as a marketing strategy is a different story. Net effect unclear; empirically, net effect appears to be negative. Imagine Constitutional rule saying that anyone is eligible, whether they live here or not, for any American welfare program. What do you think Americans would do to undo this constraint? Make it smaller. Might even get rid of it. If every person in the world eligible to get a free education at American taxpayer expense, or the equivalent, Americans might say maybe a private educational system is okay. Cheated a little bit on argument about the role of immigrants here, and the role of their children. Point I would raise in your support though is that a lot of people have a fear of immigrants because they are poor. Of course, there are people like Sergey Brin, who founded Google. Half the immigrants who are here earn above the median income. Highly skilled immigrants find it easy to get here legally. Head of Intel, Grove; a lot of great immigrants in the high-tech world. What people really worry about is people who would immigrate who are not like them, not just in ethnic origin, or national origin, but not like them in terms of skills. Worry that they would be on welfare could be true. Would add that a lot of people come here not to get on the welfare system--we know many immigrants work very hard, multiple jobs, hard work in Los Angeles, painting, home work, construction. But they come here for their kids. Discussion of ladder of opportunity broken--studies not only show that the second generation not only learn English, but they thrive--financially, relative to their parents. Very soon they are not immigrants any more, but Americans, like you and I whose ancestors moved here at some point in the distant past. Not a function of what country they were born in but of how much education they have, how hard they work, luck of course also. Education works. To suggest that somehow their parents will sabotage the political process to keep their kids poor--which is essentially what the argument is--to me shows no knowledge of human nature and why these people come. Actually would be less sanguine than you. It is true that second-generation Hispanics earn below the median income and have below the median educational attainment. It is fair to say they have a much better life than they would at home, and they contribute. They pull their own weight and more, and that's enough. Educational parity with Americans--so, what if they don't? Digression: People worried about inequality ignore the fact that tens of thousands of people, legally and illegally, come here to be at the very low end of the income distribution because they do not think that everyone here is stuck with where they are at--and correctly. Their kids will do better than they are doing. Some hostility against immigrants is that immigrants are a reproach of every American who didn't do more with his life. Don't know about that. Someone came here not speaking English, worked their way up from the bottom; now look at them. You were born here and these immigrants have done as well as you. Kind of question that while rude to raise is also fair. Back to Borjas study--penalty paid by dropouts. Got these millions of people desperately trying to have a better life, and we are going to prevent that because we have people here who didn't take advantage of it? Hard argument to make.
55:55Crime. A lot of people argue that immigrants have a higher crime rate than Americans. There is a lot of violence right now on the Texas/Mexican border related to the drug trade. Recent story: Arizona issue about policing the border and fight between the State and the Feds about the laws in the State of Arizona. Many people who are afraid, see a lot of violence going on; live on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, hear about people getting killed; scared. Not sure whether you've talked on podcast about availability bias. No. Tendency for rare, memorable examples to stick in people's minds and make them overestimate the chances something will happen. Whenever an immigrant commits a crime, people remember it's an immigrant, whereas when an American commits an equally heinous crime, they don't think: Americans are violent; or we need to export our criminals outside the borders. When a young male commits a crime, we rarely think young males are terrible. They do commit more crime. Mainstream academic literature on crime rates by immigrants: raw fact is they have a lower crime rate than native Americans. Blogged on this. May be certain areas of the country where this is not true. This is not a problem with immigrants in general. If it were a problem of crime, there are still a lot of immigrants you wouldn't worry about--women, low violent crime rates; older immigrants, few men in their 30s and older commit crimes. Cheaper and more humane thing is to keep out the ones we profile as being more prone to violent crime and let in the rest. Seems harsh--deport healthy young men between ages 16 and 25, born here, didn't do anything crazy to us; but better to let in a lot than let in none.
58:45Congestion issue. Example I have trouble thinking about. You started with important point, often forgotten, comes up often with trade issues also: we have open borders between California, Texas, New York, Vermont, etc., and you don't see all the wages driven down. Mississippi doesn't get all the jobs. Nor California. Countervailing market forces. Those forces don't work very effectively in places where we've mandated, through public policy, prices; or work in funny, not so healthy ways. City of Portland, Oregon: people who live there like it a lot. Very pleasant city. Put in place a lot of public policies to make it hard for new construction, new development, etc. Call it "smart growth." Could think of it as simply a fence. We like our life here. We have a good life. The air is clean, parks aren't crowded, roads not too crowded; and we're going to put up barriers to immigrants--in this case within America--because they are going to ruin our life. Good idea, bad idea? Bad idea. Even if they are right that they are maintaining their quality of life by making it impossible for others to move there, I think what you are doing is morally wrong. Knowing how far we can get with arguments like that, would say: there are some congestion costs, but one solution every economist knows is to stop giving everything for free. Put tolls on the roads, charge a user-fee to use the parks. We'll come back to that another time; don't think that's such an ideal solution, though common and obvious improvement, more difficult. Also negative congestion benefits worth considering. You go to New York, which historically it's been easier to build in NYC. Anything you want to do, you can do in NYC--any interest you have, etc. Benefits to this congestion. Economists would call this increasing returns to scale, agglomeration economies. When you move to an area, you are ignoring the costs you inflict by raising congestion, but also the benefits you give them in terms of creating a thicker market for the things you enjoy doing. When you move to NYC you don't consider that you are going to make it easier for somebody to find a chess partner or play Mutants and Masterminds with me--role-playing game. Every time somebody has said, NYC would be great if it weren't for all the people--wouldn't be great any more. Choices people value would be restricted. You could drive more quickly but you wouldn't want to get anywhere. Economics has a clear prediction about what the outcome will be if the congestion problem is greater than the agglomeration benefit: when more people move in, rents should fall because it becomes a less nice place to live. Certainly we can imagine a case like this. Imagine that NYC were so crowded you couldn't leave your apartment--you were physically blocked. What would the rent be in NYC? Very low. There is a point where congestion gets so bad you can clearly see it in the rents. But when we look at the most congested places in the world, we virtually always see those places are much more expensive. Says to me that the agglomeration effect is much more important than the congestion effect. If you are a misanthrope in NYC, you can move to Kansas, get away from all the people. You'll save a ton of money but give up all these choices. Back to Portland: are you suggesting that the people make a mistake, or that there is a public choice, rent-seeking explanation for why they pursue this policy? Talking to Bryan Caplan, the author of the Myth of the Rational Voter, skeptic about the wisdom of public policy mediated through democracy. Normally, when we say public choice rent seeking, we mean there are some public policies that are bad for the people living there but good for some special interests. My general view--not married to this idea--is that special interests are a pro-development force, the people who want to do something new and ask: Please let us do something new. Have to bribe or ask and ask and ask till somebody says yes. Voters like this--existing residents like "smart growth." Interest groups are probably the reason anything gets developed in Portland at all. In terms of their own financial interest they are making a mistake--development would raise the value of their own real estate. Let in a lot more construction but it makes it a better place to live. Might say: I prefer to live in a small, relaxing area. If I wanted to live in Manhattan, I would. When your real estate prices go through the roof, you have a lovely choice. You can either say: Actually I don't mind living in this high population area so much; or I'm going to sell and move to the vast majority of the United States that is more like Portland and less like Manhattan. Clever argument, but the fact is there is a limited number of such places. Would be more of them if there were more immigration. There is a physical space issue. Could live in outskirts of Portland. But they like being in the central city, downtown. Romance about that. Fine, let the growth in, and then also have an extra tax and compensate people, who build here for a certain length of time.
1:07:52Imagination, essence of economics, helping us to see things we wouldn't normally see. Thought-experiment, Bryan's example. Different one: The point you made earlier about status-quo bias, difficult for people. Easier for economists, but difficult for people to imagine a radical policy change. Correctly--in United States, policy changes are hard to get through. Used to be. Maybe getting a little easier--we'll see. We did live in a time once where we had something close to open immigration. People forget that. View proposal like Bryan's as frightening. Most countries in the European Union (EU) have open borders right now, not so different from us. Nineteenth century America is more different from us than we are from the EU. Let's go back to 1900 America. When we had that time, there were people who were very worried about it; blood in the streets. Turned out pretty well. Though it was followed by the Progressive Era, which may lead some to worry more about the politics part. Though the story there were that immigrants were the people the policies were against. Anything else? We have a wonderful historical experiment. Any thoughts for people who think it turned out horribly? Any reason to think it's comforting. A common argument you hear when you make a point like that is: Those were different people, more like me, Eastern Europeans. Today, it's Latin America, and that's different, because they are not from Eastern Europe. Can't deny. When they came from Eastern Europe, we heard the exact same things we hear now about how they are not going to assimilate, not going to speak our language, have high crime rates, going to ruin our jobs. Didn't turn out that way. Won't find many people who will say open immigration was a bad thing during that period of U.S. history. If we had not had that immigration, people today would look back and say we were crazy to do so. Interesting comparison: Australia, which had much stricter immigrations. What they got was something like 10% of America--in terms of population, GDP, not per capita. If that was all that we had, people would say: What did we miss? What we missed was being ten times as awesome. Ten times as many people getting to enjoy what we have here, miss inventions, ideas, creation, every dream of every person coming here. Not the classic kind of thing, as Frederic Bastiat says, what we don't see unless we have it. We don't see what immigrations do to other countries. Easy for people to blank it out of their minds. Know many immigrants--all human beings who wouldn't be allowed to be here. Because we didn't let them in, we wouldn't know. These are people I care about. As worthy of our concern as people born in this country. In many ways more admirable when you look at the adversity they've overcome and how much they manage to do with their lives when they are here, and how much Americans ought to learn from them.