A Universally Derided Idea Whose Time Has Come

Dylan Matthews argues that “the economic case that open borders would dramatically improve the well-being of the world is rock solid.” He interviews George Mason prof Bryan Caplan:

“Imagine that you’ve got a million people farming in Antarctica. They’re eking out this bare subsistence in agriculture in the snow,” [Caplan] says. “Obviously, if you let those farmers leave Antarctica and go someplace else to farm, the farmers are better off. But isn’t it also better for the world if you let people stop eking out this existence, contributing nothing to the world, and go someplace where they could actually use their skills and not just feed themselves, but produce something for the world economy?”

Alternately, think about what happened in the 1960s and ’70s as more and more women joined the workforce in the United States. Was the result mass unemployment for men, as women took all their jobs? Of course not — the economy adjusted, and we’re all better off for it. … That’s the basic argument for open borders: that you’re “moving productive resources” — people — “from places where they’re next to useless to places where they can contribute a lot.” The size of the numbers involved makes the case even more compelling. “You might think that moving from Haiti to the United States would cause a 20 percent increase in wages, but no. It’s more like a 2,000 percent increase in wages,” Caplan notes. “The difference between the productivity of labor in poor countries and rich countries is so vast, it’s hard to wrap your mind around it.” With numbers that big, the potential gains are enormous. A doubling of world GDP is a reasonable estimate.

Ezra Klein nods:

It’s intuitive to Americans that the economy benefits when there are more people around to invent, produce, and purchase stuff. As such, public opinion in America overwhelmingly favors the idea that we should make more people. But that consensus quickly breaks down when the conversation turns to letting in more people.

There are good reasons for that. A higher birth rate has very different implications for social solidarity than a spike in immigration, for instance. Plans to strengthen America’s social safety net — or, much more to the point, adopt a universal basic income — would buckle beneath a massive influx of immigrants. There are difficult questions around border security. There are very hard questions about how to integrate a lot of new people into American society (or any other society). But the reason most often given is a bad one: the idea that more immigrants will take jobs from, and depress wages for, native-born workers. There’s overwhelming economic evidence that higher levels of immigration make most native-born workers better off. There’s mixed evidence on the effect on low-skill workers, but even if there are small losses, those are better managed through transfer programs than by closing the border.

Alex Tabarrok looks at the data:

David Roodman has a characteristically careful and comprehensive review written for Givewell of the evidence on the effect of immigration on native wages. He writes, “the available evidence paints a fairly consistent and plausible picture”: There is almost no evidence of anything close to one-to-one crowding out by new immigrant arrivals to the job market in industrial countries.

• Most studies find that 10% growth in the immigrant “stock” changes natives’ earnings by between –2% and +2% (@Longhi, Nijkamp, and Poot 2005@, Fig 1; @Peri 2014@, Pg 1). Although serious questions can be raised about the reliability of most studies, the scarcity of evidence for great pessimism stands as a fact (emphasis added, AT) …

• One factor dampening the economic side effects of immigration is that immigrants are consumers as well as producers. They increase domestic demand for goods and services, perhaps even more quickly than they increase domestic production (@Hercowitz and Yashiv 2002@), since they must consume as soon as they arrive. They expand the economic pie even as they compete for a slice. This is not to suggest that the market mechanism is perfect—adjustment to new arrivals is not instantaneous and may be incomplete—but the mechanism does operate.

Matt Steinglass, meanwhile, thinks immigration advocates have learned a thing or two from the gay rights movement:

The most effective model America has seen in recent years of how an already-committed minority constituency can drive its party’s policies is that of the Tea Party, which staged rallies, won media attention, and (most importantly) ran right-wing candidates in primary elections to force concessions from incumbents. But some immigration activists are looking to a different model: the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual (LGBT) movement. Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, an immigration rights group, noted last year that one of the lessons he learned from the LGBT movement was that “we had to give our cause a human face.”

That may seem like a quixotic ambition, given the vociferousness of right-wing antipathy to undocumented immigrants. On the other hand, maybe not. On Monday, theWashington Post ran a story by Eli Saslow about a ten-year-old boy he calls Alex Ramirez, who earlier this year traveled 2,500 miles from El Salvador to Los Angeles to rejoin a mother and father he hadn’t seen in six years. If you want to assess whether immigration advocates have a shot at winning the heart of America, you need to read Alex’s story. It is by turns heartbreaking and heartwarming. When his father and, later, his mother left the coffee fields for America to earn money to send home, they left Alex with his grandmother in the bamboo house where the family had lived for generations. When Alex’s mother, Yessica, finally phoned to tell him she had paid for a “coyote” to take him north, he refused. Yessica insisted.