Economists’ Best Advice

Ramone:

I am a proud resident of Fairfax County, in the U.S. state of Virginia. Today, I want to warn my fine fellow Fairfax folk: we interact too promiscuously with outsiders! For example, we are allowed to buy things made outside Fairfax, and leave the county to travel or work. Fairfax firms can even choose outsiders as investors, employees, and suppliers.

Such promiscuous interaction risks polluting our precious purity with uncontrolled contamination! Surely we choose to live in oh-so-fair Fairfax because we believe in Fairfax exceptionalism, in our exceptional mix of climate, culture, attitudes, laws, personalities, etc. Yet we allow any of us to risk corrupting this exceptionality via unrestricted mixing with outsiders. For example, we let outsiders move here who might vote for politicians who also don’t share our political values. And lets not forget that terrorists might slip in.

Much of this mixing surely also hurts Fairfax locals who compete with outsiders. Fairfax residents who drive to other counties to eat restaurant meals take business away from Fairfax restaurants. Fairfax firms that hire workers living in other counties take jobs away from Fairfax workers. Fairfax people who read books and blogs written by outsiders take readers away from Fairfax authors. Sure, sometimes we benefit from mixing with outsiders, and sometimes enough to compensate for losses to locals. But no one can prove that this is always the case, or even usually the case.

So, dear fellow Fairfax folks, we simply must be more careful! I’m not saying we should never interact with outsiders, but we must be more selective. There must be oversight – we can’t just let any of us decide for themselves how much they’ll pollute or harm the rest of us.

Convinced? No? What if Ramone had talked about Virginia, instead of Fairfax – would he have made sense then? If not, then why would the same arguments make sense when applied to the United States? Sure clever folk can think up arguments that apply better to nations than to states or counties, just as they can think up reasons why it is better to let in goods or investments than workers. But it seems quite unlikely that such arguments are actually the main reason most people more easily accept exchanging people between counties and states than between nations, or accept outside goods and investment more than workers.

It seems far more likely that people are invoking ancient classifications and fears, regardless of their appropriateness for today’s world. We probably habitually see the invasion of people as more threatening than things, and see workers from other counties and states more as “us”, relative to “them” from other nations. So to believe that our barriers to immigration are for the best, you have to believe in a lucky accident.

Bryan Caplan recently posted on a Michael Clemens article which mentioned: economists typically estimate that eliminating barriers to moving workers would roughly double world GDP, a far bigger gain than eliminating barriers to moving goods or capital! For this reason economists disagree with the public, and favor open immigration:

[In] a questionnaire sent to 210 Ph.D. economists randomly selected from the American Economic Association, … few economists believe that current U.S. immigration levels are too high (16.7%)—although many (29.5%) are neutral on the matter. (more)

Question: “Please tell me if you think it is a major reason the economy is not doing better than it is, a minor reason, or not a reason at all. (0 = Not a reason at all”; 1 = “Minor reason”; 2 = “Major reason”)” Mean answers: Public: 1.22, Economists: 0.2 (more)

We economists tend to expect open immigration to increase overall wealth and value (and liberty), and to reduce inequality. Furthermore, this seems to be the biggest gain we consistently identify. You might not always listen to or believe we economists, but if you can ever be persuaded by us, please let it be on this, economists’ strongest recommendation: open those borders!

Added 7p: Fairfax County is the third richest county in the U.S., and the richest large (>.4M pop) county, and neighbors the two richer but smaller ones.

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  • matt

    “So to believe that our barriers to immigration are for the best, you have to believe in a lucky accident.”

    1. Lots of folks inside countries don’t think their accidental borders are so good. This is why there are wars for independence, civil wars, etc… People in Tibet are none to happy about Han ethnics moving on to their land changing their culture and values. Perhaps its a bias they need to overcome.

    2. Every time I read an economist on Immigration it occurs to me they suffer from some sort of magical utopian thinking. Thinking that ignores history and philosophy, that treats humans as idealized creates in a way that would make Hobbes laugh.

    3. Partiality is the relevant philosophical debate. It is not a bias, one that should be overcome. It is an essential part of what makes us human, without it many of our social institutions, like families, don’t work. This has been debated for thousands of years, I’m thinking Lau Tzu vs Kung Tzu, and Peter Singer as the modern philosopher who doesn’t believe in partiality. How many folks accept Singer’s radical utilitarianism? Do you think he is correct, is a child in Africa’s life worth as much too you as your own child’s life? Should you immediately adopt then?

    4. People are not all the same, thinking one group with a different culture from your own, will behave the same as members of your own culture group when presented by similar circumstances is wishful thinking. This is not to say all the difference between people are cultural, they are not.

    • dufu

      Perhaps they are right that global gdp would double. And dividing 2 times current global gdp by the current world population gives a per capita GDP of a little more than $17,000. That would be a vast improvement for the great majority of the world, but a significant decline for most Westerners. (If this calculation is naive I would appreciate being corrected.)

      But there’s no guarantee that even with open borders that it would be evenly distributed everywhere. Cultural differences wouldn’t just magically disappear. I doubt Sub-Saharan Africa would be a much more desirable place to live before than after.

      However, open borders would pretty much guarantee a decline in quality of life, and possibly average income, from the flood of immigrants that would inundate the developed world. That’s my intuition at least. I would love to see economist advocates of open borders address these concerns.

  • http://www.freedomtwentyfive.com/ Frost

    Robin,

    If I may, allow me to respectfully suggest a bias you might overcome.

    You are, surely by your own admission, an odd man with some odd beliefs (I hope you consider this high praise). Many of those beliefs are un-politically correct and you defend them anyways. Good on you.

    But on the question of open orders, you are fully up to date with the hottest intellectual fashions. When the topic of immigration comes up, you can indulge in the rare pleasure of writing a blog post that will earn you the respect and acceptance of your more conventionally-minded peers. I don’t suggest that this is a conscious thought process, but isn’t it possible that this incentive leads you to endorse open borders a little quicker, and a little easier than you should?

    Whether you agree with them or not, there are many valid arguments to be made in support of wealthy nations enforcing their borders and restricting immigration. If you like, I’d be happy to make some. But in any case, the subject deserves far more respect than a mere “Because we’re professional economists, and we say so.”

    Best,

    Frost

    • Anonymous

      I’d like to hear them- perhaps you could post them?

  • Albert

    The U.S. definitely could loosen its immigration policy but going all the way and endorsing total open immigration would be bad since the US has a massive social welfare system that would support people who cant fend for themselves.

    In a libertarian utopia where workers get no ‘safety net’ and if you are below subsistence you starve or get voluntary charity, then maybe immigration should be totally free but not in a place where people are forced to pay so that there are no bums on the streets.

    Not selling citizenships and/or letting in people with human capital to live here is a big mistake.

  • Ian

    I agree that our current social safety net is bad for immigration, but that’s almost beside the point, because the only reason our country even needs such massive welfare for the poor is the even more massive welfare state for the rich…Kevin Carson has an excellent blog post on this.

    ~Ian

  • http://whyiamnot.wordpess.com Salem

    The economists’ argument:

    1. If a person moves from the First World to the Third World, he becomes more productive. (TRUE)
    2. Therefore if everyone who wanted to lived in the First World, we would all be massively richer. (TRUE)
    3. Therefore unlimited immigration. (DOES NOT FOLLOW)

    What makes First World countries rich is the people/culture/human institutions. There are many more people in the Third World than the first. Therefore unlimited immigration means that we will all live in the Third World.

    Thirty years ago the argument would have been to turn Third World countries into First World ones. Economists have shown they don’t know how to do this. Therefore, throwing up their hands, they say “Oh, just let everyone move here, that’ll fix it.” This is not economics, it is wishcasting.

    I do not think I am making a particularly sophisticated argument that is ignored in formulating the laws. “If you let in lots of Mexicans, the US will be more like Mexico” is simple enough for any bumper sticker.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Hang on a moment! In what kind of model are people trying to maximise “world GDP”? A pretty crazy kind of model, I can tell you that much. That is a long way past unrealistic.

    • Ian

      As my economics professor always said, “Good politics does not necessarily make for good economics.” You’re correct that people aren’t trying to maximize world GDP, but that only demonstrates that most people aren’t exactly doing good economics (but then again, we already know that anyway).

      ~Ian

      • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

        Economists should not be not in the business of telling people what they want. Most people are not interested in maximising world GDP. That is not because they are bad economists. The idea that people are trying to maximise world GDP makes very little sense – it is just silly. So: no surprise if they ignore advice based on this premise – the premise is wrong.

    • someoneelse

      Ha, yeah, many people are just building God’s Kingdom on Earth :D

    • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

      Amen. I’ve noticed before that many of these libertariainish economists believe in atomic individual utility maximization on one day, then on the next they’ll be talking as if they were the High Commissioner of the World Government, whose job is to maximize the lumped total utility of everybody on the planet. The contradiction never seems to be visible to them, nor does the way real people think about utility.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        Robin Hanson prioritizes utilitarianism-through-making-the-best-deal while Caplan is (relative to Hanson if not some Rothbardians) a dogmatic libertarian, but Caplan still proposed a “dealist” solution for immigration here.

  • fructose

    You don’t actually engage with the restrictionists’ actual arguments. Restrictionists don’t oppose people moving to Fairfax county from other US counties for the same reason they generally aren’t opposed to people moving from Canada or Australia to the United States. Canadians and Australians are like Americans, English speaking first-worlders, just as people in Montgomery County, Maryland who move to Fairfax are English speaking first-worlders.

  • Ari T

    I think part of this might be evolutionary. Most action has the objective to increase the chance of reproduction but some action is meant to increase the reproduction probability of the same family etc. There was a study about this some years ago.

    While economically (á la comparative advantage) it may not make much sense to subsidize local, we do it all the time in families, probably Dr. Hanson does this too. :-)

    Also I think immigration is a much more complex issue than mere economic efficiency. While I have no problem with free borders per se I wouldn’t have problems finding all kinds of scenarios where mass immigration does not lead to a favorable outcome.

    For example, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a correllation of institution (public or private) efficiency and median intelligence.

    Then there are all kinds of hard philosophical problems. If people with less-than-desirable-features are not allowed to enter, then why such are allowed to be born? While immigration restrictions are not consequentalist de jure, they are that de facto. Libertarians interested in their own moral consistency should think hard about the issue.

    But I agree on the substance that most of the anti free-border rhetoric comes from people who are unaware of the gains from immigration and misunderstand comparative advantage completely.

    ps. I cannot resist the temptation to use Latin expressions. Mostly its signaling of author’s ability, but there’s something aesthetic about them. Wonder why. Also I’ve noticed Latin expressions are very popular among academic writings, even when there simple common language alternatives available which will reach broader audience.

    • billswift

      Interestingly, Robin occasionally writes about the best reason to promote localism in industry and agriculture – survival. If another Carrington event were to happen, or a nearby supernova (as in Fred Hoyle’s *The Inferno*), or a comet impact (see Niven and Pournelle’s *Lucifer’s Hammer* for a nasty one), or any of many thousands of other things that could go wrong, a locality that was less dependent on imports could more comfortably survive than others. The costs associated with redundant and less efficient production could/should be considered catastrophe insurance.

      A Carrington event for example is something we know has happened in the relatively recent past, and that we do not know how frequent they may be, since humans wouldn’t have noticed one much earlier than the one that was known. They could happen frequently, and we just happened to develop a vulnerable civilization in an unusually inactive period.

  • Benjamin Cole

    Yeah, yeah, yeah.

    Then why does the right-wing bray so much about states’ rights?

    Should not liquor be sold nationally without any regulation? How about de-licensing all lawyers and letting them practice where-ever? Doctors too. How about wiping out all state laws pertaining to health insurance, and opening up the national market?

    States are barriers to free trade. Obviously, all state laws that limit commerce and trade should be overturned.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    matt, so does Ramone’s “partiality” seem reasonable to you?
    Dufu, that is naive; overall wealth and value of “Westerners” would increase.
    Frost, I hear many dozens of bad arguments; what are the good ones?
    Albert, the welfare system would adapt and reduce in response to lots of immigration.
    Salem, by your argument won’t Fairfax become non-Fairfax also if our county borders are open to other counties?
    fructose, which arguments do you recommend? You say non-Fairfax folks are “like” Fairfax folks, but to Ramone they seem quite different. Why is he wrong?
    Ari, Ramone thinks Fairfax folks should close borders because they are more intelligent; is he wrong?
    Benjamin, I don’t speak for “the right-wing.”

    • Ari T

      Robin, I don’t think the issue is binary. Just like regulation, the jump from most regulation is bad to all regulation is bad is quite a leap. Voluntary trade between two parties is generally fine and great, but saying that all trade has to be allowed is quite a leap (explosives and radioactive material for starters). To give your analogy a counter-example, if we switched the happy Fairfrax population and Somalia, why do you think the Fairfax wouldn’t look more like Somalia?

      I think I would pull up the Tyler Cowen card and say: “it depends”. A lot of knowledge is context-dependent. The problem with analogies is that they go only that far. Look at Lebanon, a massive conflict between Christians and Muslims. Now that is a massive coordination failure, and unlikely to happen in Western world but things like this show that there are many ways you can look at and avoid coordination problems. If you run an inefficient economic policy, at least you can reverse it at some point, but you cannot reverse demographics.

      But I like your analogy though. There seems to a lot hostility to open borders in US, and most of its probably based on F.U.D. There’s an anti-immigration movement in my country too. However what are missing is, thank god, the exceptionalism / nationalism which I find completely silly, and a bit dangerous.

      However as a matter of public policy open borders are great. I think all human things become corrupt over time: people, institutions, software etc. Competition keeps such things in a check. The ability to vote with feet is probably the best thing that there is to efficiency. The welfare state would probably come to an end quite fast.

      As a side no I used to work in Ireland, I just went there with a job and done. Going to US to work … well that is another story. You have to fill about 100 papers, do all kinds of interviews and tests. The process takes from months to years. Someone also recommended not to criticize US foreign policy to avoid being on the short list for AR.

  • E. H.

    Inspiring, this one, and one of, if not the, most important rights to secure: to be able to move freely – to vote with your feet.

  • Kakun

    If anything I think your poll underestimates how strongly economists support immigration, given that other polls have found stronger results. E.g. Stephen Moore and Julian Simon found in a (slightly out of date) survey that 0% of economists surveyed thought that immigration had had a slightly negative or very negative impact on economist growth in the 20th century, and 0% replied “Don’t know”. The same poll found that 0% of economists favored less immigration and only 7% were unsure.

    http://www.cato.org/pubs/policy_report/pr-imopi.html

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      I just grabbed the first two polls I found – didn’t mean to slight this one.

  • matt

    Robin,

    1. Partiality isn’t necessarily reasonable in any individual instance, like punishing defectors in a game where you hurt yourself by punishing them. Partiality works when the game is played over the long run. Too much partiality and you have a closed society that never grows. Too little and you have society whose rules are gamed by those who still form teams and take advantage of the larger society’s naivety.

    The circle of people you are partial too grows, but expecting huge leaps is utopian. Humans don’t work that way, and for good reason!

    So yes Ramon is unreasonable, but he is also a straw man.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      But why is Ramone an unreasonable straw man? Why is his partiality bad, and a closed US borders partiality good?

      • matt

        Ramone’s argument is a characterture. People in Arlington, and Fairfax are basically indistinguishable, and the economic and social unions between the two so utterly unlikely to cause noticeable changes, it doesn’t follow that free immigration from the third world to the US would also be similarly unproblematic. People are partial to those who are like them. What do you think would be more controversial, an open border with Canada, or Mexico, do you really think racism is the prime difference between the reaction? What if we proposed an open border with Japan, or China, which would get more support? How different would the effects of those policies be, given that few Japanese would move here, but lots of Chinese would. No one is arguing that comparative advantage doesn’t exist, and that free trade doesn’t benefit all in aggregate. Having open trade and borders with people of similar cultural and economic systems is unlikely to cause massive social changes, the kind of thing that people of my accepted political unit should have say in.

        Ramone’s argument is a dismissive and an attack on the motives of people who don’t want to see a favella go up in Arlington Cemetery. It explicitly mentions purity just to make sure you understand that immigration restrictions are by their very nature racist. You might answer that I’d be better off with the Favella, I could as a middle class man afford many servants, like a middle class family in India. It would be better for me to have the servants, and better for them to be employed. Guess I’m a terrible person because I don’t want to live in country with a servant class, and an even larger class of non-employable people, who rely on crime to survive.

      • matt

        In thinking about my response I didn’t answer your question. So let me try again.

        There is a difference between asking to expand the circle of Partiality and asking to keep it the same, and expanding it’s reach. Shrinking the circle is very rarely likely to benefit you, and causes much disruption. Although in some extreme cases it might be necessary.

        An interesting analogy is Greece and Europe. In fact I think the Union of Europe might be really instructive in how sometimes the costs of greater integration can exceed the benefits. Sometimes the costs are just not evenly distributed and Germany might want to think of German tax payers before they think about Greek pensioners. That isn’t racist, its partial.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        matt, so it is just a status quo effect? Would Ramone be right if his preferred policy had been the status quo?

      • matt

        Not right, right and wrong aren’t the standard, convincing and not-convincing is more appropriate. Our bias towards the status quo isn’t something necessarily bad, major changes in either direction require a very compelling case to be convincing. Putting up an argument that is obviously not convincing counts as a straw man in my book.

        The costs of open borders are very apparent to me personally as I can’t afford a compound to lock myself up in to protect me from the violence of the Arlington cemetery favella. Most of my country men would also feel the significant negative affects. Most the benefits would accrue to the new comers. The US could almost certainly increase immigration and it would still be beneficial but at some point the marginal returns will become negative. Pure freedom of movement for labor would so obviously be an unmitigated disaster for me and mine, that it seems odd to have to explain to you that Maximizing global utility isn’t, and shouldn’t be our personal goals.

  • richard silliker

    1996 abortions in the U.S., 1.37 million.

  • Vladimir M.

    Robin Hanson:

    I hear many dozens of bad arguments [against open borders]; what are the good ones?

    To put it as simply as possible:

    1. Most first-worlders aren’t keen on lowering their living standards dramatically and destroying the fabric of their societies, even if your utilitarian calculus says that this would result in an aggregate worldwide gain. You can scold them for it as much as you like, but I’d bet you wouldn’t be happy either if some wise planner concluded that it would be efficient to remove you from your professorship and assign you a job in a coal mine, or to let a few homeless people live in your house.

    2. There is no proof, nor even any common-sense reason to believe, that first-world institutions would remain high-quality under an overwhelming influx of third-world people. All the studies that you cite in favor of open borders assume a can opener in this regard.

    3. These studies are based on basic microeconomics. Well guess what. Basic microeconomics also tells us that no such thing as involuntary unemployment can exist, because markets clear. I am baffled that you seem so oblivious of the spherical-cow nature of all these models.

    And so on. Even if you dismiss all these arguments, you should still consider that you’re proposing a massive social intervention on a scale unparalleled in human history — and waving a few studies is hardly enough to allay fears of what might come out of it.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Why don’t these arguments apply just as well to support Ramone?

      • Vladimir M.

        Obviously, they don’t apply between places whose populations and levels of economic development are sufficiently similar. For start, this means that there isn’t going to be an overwhelming flood of migration in the first place, unlike in case of huge economic differences. Then, people coming from a rich place aren’t going to cause wages to plummet, and culturally similar people are unlikely to change significantly the local institutions (both formal and informal). Do I really have to spell this out?

        Moreover, open borders between U.S. counties are the status quo, whereas open borders between countries aren’t. Changing either would be a radical intervention. And there is no good reason whatsoever to believe that making the latter more similar to the former must be safe because the former presently works fine.

        Presumably if you saw a shantytown spring up across the street from where you live, you’d move and never look back. But if I now draw an analogy like Ramone’s, this would mean that you must be opposed to anyone ever moving into your neighborhood! Because if it’s in your interest to prevent shantytowns next door, then it also must be in your interest to prevent any sort of people ever settling close to you, period. Ramone’s argument is equally silly.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        These arguments don’t have a threshold, to justify applying them only if places aren’t “sufficiently similar.” Bigger differences might imply bigger effects, but the effect sign would stay the same.

  • Robert Speirs

    I am a proud resident of 1234 Parker Lane. I feel bad about not letting the inhabitants of 1232 Parker Lane and 1236 Parker Lane come into my house any time they want to and appropriate to themselves my potato chips, beer, guns and secret stash of gold coins. I realize this is illiberal, stupid and counterproductive. The Parker Lane community would no doubt be richer if everyone shared everyone else’s goods and living space. But somehow, probably because I’m an evil conservative, I just can’t get over the fact that I should be able to protect my property from, not just other Parker Lane people, but from economists as well.

    But I’m sure Ramone has no silly retrograde obsessive contraptions such as locks on his doors or burglar alarms on his windows. Why, that would be irrational!

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      So do you agree with Ramone or not? Why is it so hard to get commenters to engage the analogy which is the central point of this post?

    • Finch

      I’m rather sympathetic to pro-immigration arguments, but I find the pro-immigrant arguers to be mostly inept.

      I don’t live in Fairfax, but “immigration restrictions” in the form of zoning laws, minimum lot sizes, historic districts, the locavore movement (“Save our farms!”), conservation land, and property taxes are common in American towns. The aim is to keep the undesirable folks from living next to you and going to school with your kids by making it too expensive for anybody but the good people. You can argue about whether they are desirable, but they’re certainly popular and not really associated with the political extremes on either side of the aisle.

      One thing I don’t understand is why economists feel that in the case of immigration, removing barriers means giving western citizenships away for free. If there’s so much value to be captured, why aren’t the owners of citizenship rights selling them? (Citizens of western nations control citizenship rights to those nations, and are effectively “owners”) The redistributive element is something people balk at. Why does removal of restriction mean we can’t trade?

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        I’m much more ok with transferable citizenship, and with setting a near revenue maximizing price for creating new citizenship rights.

  • dave

    Mass immigration would be good (at least in the short run) for the top 1% and bad for the bottom 99% of first world society. How does that not get support?

  • http://off-line Donald Weetman Cameron

    It seems far more likely that people are invoking ancient classifications and fears, regardless of their appropriateness for today’s world. We probably habitually see the invasion of people as more threatening than things, and see workers from other counties and states more as “us”, relative to “them” from other nations. So to believe that our barriers to immigration are for the best, you have to believe in a lucky accident.

    A lucky accident?
    You mean like pregnancy in a world of elderly (35+) primiparas?

    We never left our ancient world. Borderless civilizations would become tribal and take us back to the primeval, never mind the ancient.
    Only our technology has changed.
    Borders merely formalize a kind and type of human aggregation.
    Contracts are a kind of border.
    The family home is a kind of border.
    The cells that comprise all of life are kinds of borders.

    A border is just the perimeter of a kind of container.
    Respectfully
    dwc RMCM™
    God bless

  • tribsantos

    I was clicking on the links from this post, and it led me to the discussion whether voters irrationality ever reflected on actual policies, and I think that immigration policy must be the best example of how it does and has huge consequences…

  • http://caveatbettor.blogspot.com caveat bettor

    The first thing that popped to my rather feeble mind was: doesn’t Fairfax County have superior access to federal tax largesse? Maybe I am the only one blinded with bias here, but I suspect not.

  • CSchurz

    My county, right or wrong!

  • nelsonal

    I think this debate hinges ones beliefs about two key questions. First, that wealthy nations are wealthy largely because of real productivity rather than their wealth mostly being rents on a few institutions or innovations (rents that may not scale with additional population). Second, that human talent is universally distributed and differences in environment are largely responsible for different human capital levels.

    I don’t think there is enough evidence to answer both of these questions, to a high enough degree that I’d support making drastic changes to policy, yet.

  • Matt W

    Sure clever folk can think up arguments that apply better to nations than to states or counties, just as they can think up reasons why it is better to let in goods or investments than workers. But it seems quite unlikely that such arguments are actually the main reason most people more easily accept exchanging people between counties and states than between nations, or accept outside goods and investment more than workers.

    Given the above, I’m not exactly sure what it is you want. You already acknowledge that townships, counties, states, and nations can be legitimately differentiated, so…what do you want? I guess you think it’s all just stealth racism, so…what do you want? Why ask a question when you already know the answer?

  • Vladimir M.

    Robin Hanson:

    These arguments don’t have a threshold, to justify applying them only if places aren’t “sufficiently similar.” Bigger differences might imply bigger effects, but the effect sign would stay the same.

    Now you’re nitpicking without addressing the main points. If someone drops a feather or a piano on your head, the effect signs are also the same — and indeed there is no exact threshold where a thing dropped on your head suddenly becomes a problem if its weight is increased by epsilon.

    This doesn’t make it outrageously wrong to say that the reasons why it’s bad to have a piano dropped on your head don’t apply if the weight of the thing being dropped is sufficiently small. The same goes for these differences in the case of open borders.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      It sounds like you are saying that Ramone’s argument is as good as the usual anti-immigration argument, except that since the differences are smaller the gain from his preferred policy is smaller, and except that he wants to change a status quo, where we should generically prefer to keep status quos.

    • Matthew

      I think there is a certain threshold involved – on an individual level, any benefits to relocating have to overcome the costs of moving (both emotional and monetary). In the Fairfax example the neighboring counties are pretty much just as well-off so that’s rarely the case, thus there’s no real risk of a disrupting influx of “foreigners” and protectionist laws aren’t typically needed. In real life, with the much larger differences between first and third world, strict laws are far more essential to preserve the status quo.

      So while the sign may not switch in the two examples, we’re still talking about the difference between a negligible societal impact in Fairfax and a massive one for the whole U.S.

  • Scott Messick

    Robin, I find the standard economic argument for open borders to be straightforwardly convincing. I love the Fairfax analogy! It concisely illustrates the hopeless incogency of many of the typical arguments one hears on this topic. (Including, ironically, as you have repeatedly pointed out, many of the ones in these comments.)

  • Dave

    I am a proud resident of Navaho Tribe,and I I want to warn my fine fellow tribesmen: we interact too promiscuously with White men! For example, we are allowed to buy things made outside the tribe like whiskey and guns and even sell land to Whites.There are too many whites moving in. Look what they did in Africa!

    College Boy Indian “Shut up.You are a racist.You are not logical.”

  • Evan

    I think the bad guy bias is a definite player here as well. People are happy to build houses in Tornado Alley and farm on the slopes of Vesuvius. But even suggest allowing scary poor people to move to the same country as them and they go crazy.

    In regards to matt’s comments on partiality, I think a good way to solve the dilemma of when partiality is good or bad is to look at what types of partiality cause good and bad results. Family partiality seems to be positive, it makes people happy and encourages them to work hard, also it is genetically ingrained, attempts to discourage it (such as kibbutzim) cause more harm than help. Family partiality does have some problems like nepotism, but they seem to be outweighed by the benefits. However, family partiality seems to decrease dramatically in utility the further you get from a nuclear family. Partiality among huge extended families is a leading cause of corruption, and if you use a biological definition of race, racism is technically partiality among huge extended families.

    Partiality in response to friendship and people you know seems to be positive, people like having friends and hanging out with them, and this rarely hurts other people. Partiality in response to traits people have some control over, like talent, occupation, criminal background, etc, are positive as well, as they create positive incentives. Partiality in response to traits people can’t control (other than family membership), such as race and sex, by contrast leads to negative things like (obviously) racism and sexism.

    So it seems like partiality is good when:
    1) It applies to people you know.
    2) It applies to immediate family members.
    3) It applies to strangers based on traits they have some control over.

    Partiality is bad when:
    1) It applies to strangers based on traits they have no control over.

    Nationalist partiality is therefore bad. You’re judging strangers based on something they have no power to control. This is very similar to partialities like racism and sexism, which have been amply demonstrated to have had negative effects in the future.

    @Vladimir M

    Most first-worlders aren’t keen on lowering their living standards dramatically and destroying the fabric of their societies, even if your utilitarian calculus says that this would result in an aggregate worldwide gain.

    I think Robin’s calculus implies a gain for everyone. That’s what drives me nuts about restrictionists. It’s like someone’s trying to give a trillion dollars to charity at no cost to them, and they’re trying to stop them.

    There is no proof, nor even any common-sense reason to believe, that first-world institutions would remain high-quality under an overwhelming influx of third-world people.

    How about the fact that the US once accepted huge influxes of third world people in the past, and its institutions have survived? It even accepted groups that everyone “knew” were innately criminal, had low IQs, and would never amount to anything, like the Chinese and the Jews.

    @Dave

    I am a proud resident of Navaho Tribe,and I I want to warn my fine fellow tribesmen: we interact too promiscuously with White men!

    There’s not really a comparison between and armed invasion by a foreign power and letting people peaceably come to an established nation to work. The best comparison I could think of of really negative effects to an established nation from immigration would be the case of Mexico in the 1800s, huge swarms of American illegal immigrants (who were also slaveowners) rushed in and outright stole a huge chunk of land. However, Mexico has tons of illegal immigrants in the US today, and they don’t appear to have any such ill intentions. Other countries might want to think twice before they let Texans immigrate, though.

    • matt

      A few notes:

      On partiality, thank you for trying to engage but you miss the point.
      1. Partiality at the national or Ethnic level can be useful and is not always bad.
      Examples:
      A) The soldier who won’t fire on people of his own ethnicity/national origin is an important check on tyranny. How many Libyan fighter jets flew to Egypt rather than fire on their own people? More than a few.
      B) When another country attacks you own its wise to have some feelings towards you fellow country mates, otherwise coordinated defenses don’t work too well.

      2. My point about partiality isn’t that it is good and it justifies a closed border, my point is that it exists and understanding open borders conflicts with a basic human universal moral principal, should be reflected in your arguments. Instead you ignore the moral intuition of the vast majority of your co-nationalists and are somehow surprised when they are horrorified.

      3. Some folks feel more partial then others, this mix of personalities helps society stay dynamic, increasing and decreasing our circle of friends as circumstances dictate and the power moves from one direction to another. People like Robin need to realize they suffer from being on the extreme tail of the low-partiality spectrum. Their lack of ability to place the hardships of co-nationalist above gains for others is not going to be received well. This is why I say Robin’s thinking is utopian.

      On gains in GDP
      “I think Robin’s calculus implies a gain for everyone.”
      1. Aggregate gains aren’t the same as a gain for everyone. There are winners and losers.
      2, If both GDP doubles and the population doubles it doesn’t follow that I am personally better off. Most goods I’m interested once my material needs are satisfied are positional, Those goods become even more out of reach.
      3. All the problems with open borders are immediate, any gains, assuming there would be gains, will be in the future. How long is my life crappy before it gets better? Status quo anyone?

      “How about the fact that the US once accepted huge influxes of third world people in the past, and its institutions have survived?”
      1. The US had a large amount of undeveloped land, both in the west and near its major population centers in the East. That made a large difference.
      2. We were moving from an agricultural economy to an industrial one and need many more workers. There were fewer losers, but they were still vocal.
      3. Our institutions didn’t survive, and it is a mistake to think they did. They changed a great deal in response to the new population and their values. Mostly for the better in this case, but to argue change won’t happen is kind of silly, it also ignores the great contribution to social change made by immigrants.

      “There’s not really a comparison between and armed invasion by a foreign power and letting people peaceably come to an established nation to work.”
      1. This is naive to say the least. How many examples, from my own life, people I know personally, have been affected by major demographic changes within their own countries, or by organization from demographically distinct groups within their nations. I know Christians from Lebanon, I have known folks who have had to flee their land in South Africa, Chinese friends whose families where butchered in Pogroms in indonesia.

      2. Here is a scenario for you. Millions of people from the third world move here, but because of genetic, historical and cultural issues, they still are lagging behind white Americans, who hold much of the wealth and now live mostly in enclosed compounds protected by hired security. These new citizens vote in a new leader, Lets call him Chavez 2, who seeks to level the playing field, declares himself dictator for life. Do you really think this couldn’t happen? Our institutions can’t survive more inequality then we have, and in your examples of the past they didn’t have too.

    • Thursday

      However, family partiality seems to decrease dramatically in utility the further you get from a nuclear family. Partiality among huge extended families is a leading cause of corruption, and if you use a biological definition of race, racism is technically partiality among huge extended families.

      It never ceases to amaze me that libertarians seem to think that letting in more people of different ethnic groups is actually going to decrease the importance of extended families/ethnic groups, with all the attendant corruption etc. that goes along with them.

  • Vladimir M.

    Evan:

    I think Robin’s calculus implies a gain for everyone.

    Well then this calculus is clearly inconsistent with reality. Even under the most optimistic assumption that the quality of the existing institutions remains unaffected, and under the spherical-cow assumption that there won’t be any non-pecuniary externalities, it’s plain as day that the owners of land and capital would profit, but wages would plummet for all but a minority of specialized high-skill labor (and also various rent-seekers whose rents are masqueraded as wages).

    Even when it comes to free trade, economists who aren’t ideologically committed to defend it against all objections will admit that it has lowered the wages of a great many, perhaps most, U.S. workers in recent decades. Now imagine just what would happen with free international labor mobility. And all this doesn’t even start to address the issue of unemployment, which shouldn’t even exist according to the simple micro models used in these studies that get bandied around.

    As for the institutions, I think the inferential distances are too great to allow for a productive discussion here. There is simply too much difference between all the relevant factors in the historical mass immigration from a century ago and the (far more massive) one that would follow with an open-borders policy nowadays to draw any pertinent analogies.

    • Ari T

      Well then this calculus is clearly inconsistent with reality. Even under the most optimistic assumption that the quality of the existing institutions remains unaffected, and under the spherical-cow assumption that there won’t be any non-pecuniary externalities, it’s plain as day that the owners of land and capital would profit, but wages would plummet for all but a minority of specialized high-skill labor (and also various rent-seekers whose rents are masqueraded as wages).

      Even when it comes to free trade, economists who aren’t ideologically committed to defend it against all objections will admit that it has lowered the wages of a great many, perhaps most, U.S. workers in recent decades.

      According to which study? Yes nominal wages can and will drop but economy as a whole will be better off (double the GDP possibly) which means purchasing power will rise (discounted to labor hour for example).

      For developing countries, cheap labor and free trade is historically their best way out of poverty and to living standards of the Western world. I don’t think I have right to condemn them to poverty.

      I would love to see a prediction market here, so we would see who is really wrong. Given that last time I checked my textbook, most economists (90% or so) agree that tariffs decrease economic welfare I’m curious to know where Vladimir is getting his data, because I remember someone named Vladimir M writing:

      When looking for information about some area outside of one’s expertise, it is usually a good idea to first ask what academic scholarship has to say on the subject. In many areas, there is no need to look elsewhere for answers: respectable academic authors are the richest and most reliable source of information, and people claiming things completely outside the academic mainstream are almost certain to be crackpots.

      • lxm

        Before you go tearing down walls, you have to ask why the walls were built in the first place.

        Ari writes: “For developing countries, cheap labor and free trade is historically their best way out of poverty and to living standards of the Western world. I don’t think I have right to condemn them to poverty.”

        Some folks disagree with this. Go read some Ha-Joon Chang. He argues that protectionism is the key for establishing new industries and that free trade and cheap labor benefits the first world countries more than the third world countries. Is he right? Who knows. But he is a respected economist who disagrees with your statement.

        Or go read this guy who argues that “hyper- connectivity can crash a system, and has, and even how this can be charted.” http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2011/aug/28/ah-chaos/ When you tear down borders you are encouraging more hyper-connectivity.

        I would also agree with Vladimir M. that globalization has lead to the lowering of wages to workers in the United States or at least to their stagnation.

        So be careful what you ask for, because you might get it.

        As we’ve seen over the last several years there is a lot of space between the economist’s theories and models and the real world.

      • Vladimir M.

        Ari T,

        Re: free trade, I probably shouldn’t have opened another can of worms. Note that I’m not claiming that free trade doesn’t increase the overall wealth produced, or that it doesn’t benefit workers in poor countries, as well as some percentage of workers in rich countries. However, there is simply no support for the claim that it must benefit everyone and that there aren’t also losers, namely workers in rich countries whose wages fall as the result.

        Note that I’m not arguing in favor of protectionism, or that this outcome is unfair, or anything like that in this context. I’m merely pointing out that unlike the ideological absolutist position that more free movement of people and/or goods simply must benefit everyone as if it were a law of physics or logic, in reality there are always at least some losers along with the winners — and it’s wrong or dishonest to pretend otherwise. Regardless of any concrete ideological or political implications of this fact, this is simply a matter of recognizing reality.

        As for the concrete studies, if you just google “free trade us unskilled wages” (without quotes), you’ll find a bunch of papers arguing over how large the negative effect on unskilled wages might be. What you will not find, however, is a unanimous statement that this is a non-issue because it follows from pure logic that nobody can be a loser.

        (I also remember that a few years ago Paul Krugman dropped this bomb in a column. He wrote that “it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that growing U.S. trade with third world countries reduces the real wages of many and perhaps most workers in this country [U.S.].” It was funny to read Krugman’s repeated frantic assurances that he’s not a protectionist in that column, as well as the outraged reactions of his colleagues that followed.)

        Also, regarding that article of mine that you cite, have you read the part where I comment on the state of the art in economics?

  • Evan

    @matt

    1. Partiality at the national or Ethnic level can be useful and is not always bad.
    Examples:
    A) The soldier who won’t fire on people of his own ethnicity/national origin is an important check on tyranny. How many Libyan fighter jets flew to Egypt rather than fire on their own people? More than a few.
    B) When another country attacks you own its wise to to have some feelings towards you fellow country mates, otherwise coordinated defenses don’t work too well.

    It can be, you can definitely find examples of pretty much any partiality producing good results if you know enough history. But on average national partiality has been harmful. In particular, in B) the only reason it’s needed is because of the partiality the invaders felt towards each other, and the lack of partiality they felt towards us.

    1. The US had a large amount of undeveloped land, both in the west and near its major population centers in the East. That made a large difference.

    It still has that. The US has a ridiculously low population density.

    This is naive to say the least. How many examples, from my own life, people I know personally, have been affected by major demographic changes within their own countries, or by organization from demographically distinct groups within their nations. I know Christians from Lebanon, I have known folks who have had to flee their land in South Africa, Chinese friends whose families where butchered in Pogroms in indonesia.

    Those examples tended to occur in developing countries without strong rule of law to protect their citizens. In more developed countries it is quite possible for impoverished populations to live in the general vicinity of wealthy ones. Ann Arbor is only fifty miles from Detroit, but no one there seems terrified of those nearby impoverished populations.

    Millions of people from the third world move here, but because of genetic, historical and cultural issues, they still are lagging behind white Americans, who hold much of the wealth and now live mostly in enclosed compounds protected by hired security. These new citizens vote in a new leader, Lets call him Chavez 2, who seeks to level the playing field, declares himself dictator for life.

    Restrictionists in my examples of the past did make arguments like this. In particular they feared that Catholics were inherently disloyal. They didn’t pan out.

    Another thing to consider is the Fairfax example again. Imagine Fairfax residents claiming that all the new workers coming in would mean they’d vote for different people and change the political landscape. The obvious flaw in this is that most of those new workers would still vote in their home counties. That’s because with open borders between counties, there’s no need to stay there as permanent citizens. With open borders between countries, there’d be less incentive to stay permanently, since there’d be no obstacles to return.

    @Vladimir M.

    Even when it comes to free trade, economists who aren’t ideologically committed to defend it against all objections will admit that it has lowered the wages of a great many, perhaps most, U.S. workers in recent decades. Now imagine just what would happen with free international labor mobility.

    As Ari T. mentioned, nominal wages are not really important, what matters is purchasing power. Cheap, foreign made products take much less money to purchase, so even if wages dropped, the result tends to be beneficial. Closing borders between counties, like Robin’s parody suggests, would result in a titanic boost in wages for everyone in the county. However, it would also cause the price of everything to increase dramatically, more than balancing it out.

    Of course there would be some losers. But that applies to the Fairfax county example as well, I’m sure some of the jobs I’ve been rejected from in my life have gone to people from other counties, but I don’t want to close the county borders. And many of our institutions have winners and losers, and no one wants to get rid of them. If you suggested banning cars because of the losers they create (accident victims) everyone would think you were insane. I’m betting the difference is that people feel more in control in the case of cars, and less in control in the case of immigration. It could also be the status quo bias, of course.

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  • Thursday

    So to believe that our barriers to immigration are for the best, you have to believe in a lucky accident.

    No, you don’t have to believe they are for the best. You just have to believe they work better than the alternatives put out there, like open borders.

    As an analogy, you don’t have to believe that the layout of Boston’s streets, based on old horse trails, is the best possible layout for a modern city. Rather you just have to show that ripping up downtown Boston is an even worse idea.

    So, yes, one could argue that the border between Canada and the U.S. doesn’t make much sense anymore. A good argument could be made that its just a historical accident. But that doesn’t mean that the same argument could be made for eliminating all borders.