Stationary Waves And Immigration

This morning Bryan Caplan links to a thirteen-year-old article by Marginal Revolution's Alex Tabarrok that briefly justifies open immigration policy using various systems of normative ethics. Caplan is correct; the Tabarrok article is excellent.

The article is of particular interest to Stationary Waves readers because, not only has poor Sonic Charmer been haplessly railing against open borders lately (here, here, and here), but also because I have been thinking about - and writing about - normative ethics a lot this week. The strength of Tabarrok's article is that he assesses the merits of immigration according to nearly ever kind of objection that could raised, at least every objection that is rooted in a formal theory of normative ethics. Those who object, then, face the responsibility of explaining why immigration is not ethical, in the language of normative ethics. It is a powerful rhetorical tool, and I doubt Sonic Charmer and those who share his opinions would ever undertake the task. (Lending credence to this is the fact that Sonic Charmer's written response this morning favors snark over substance.)

But, rather than discuss Tabarrok's points, I thought I would give immigration the Stationary Waves treatment.

Immigration And The Collectivist-Individualist Divide
One way of viewing the immigration issue is as a conflict between individualism and collectivism.

The immigrant, by the very act of leaving his community at home for a chance at a better life, is engaged in an individualist - and therefore existential - pursuit. The community he joins, however, consists of people having two different attitudes.

Those who welcome the immigrant primarily do so for moral reasons, in that they feel it would be unjust to make him suffer simply because came from another place. Even if they don't find moral arguments for immigration compelling, they nonetheless feel that treating someone poorly is immoral if their only real justification is xenophobia.

Those who reject the immigrant primarily do so for existential reasons. Properly understood, their arguments are not about whether or not open immigration policy is "moral." Instead, their concern is how an influx of immigrants will affect their lives. Their strongest objection is wholly existential: What, they ask, is the meaning of a border, if that border is not enforced? Weaker objections are no less existential: What will become of the nation's welfare policies? What will happen to rates of crime and disease? Finally, there is the nuanced existential question of how groups are defined. Many anti-immigrationists suggest that allowing foreigners into the local community significantly alters the constitution of that community. While this appears to be a social concern, it is actually existential because it speaks to the definition of the community, as well as their own individual relationship to it. That is to say, it involves their perception of how they themselves exist in relation to the community, as opposed to how they and the community interact together.

All that is to say that the immigrant's existential motives create existential conflict among some, and moral harmony among others. This is consistent with what I wrote before, when I stated that "where there is existential conflict, there is moral hope."

Thus, using the collectivist-individualist analytical framework, the only way the immigration conflict can actually be resolved is through morality. You might not enjoy the fact that your home value has decreased thanks to immigration (oh, brother...), but how ethical is it to prevent certain ethnic groups from moving in next door?

Well, Tabarrok undertook this question from a variety of moral directions and reached the same conclusion with all of them. Sonic Charmer may snark, but can he offer a moral justification for closed borders?

Immigration And The Rules-Merit Schema
Next we move on to the rules vs. merit schema I introduced earlier this month.

Every argument in favor of immigration is an appeal to the merits of the enterprise. Immigrants bring with them labor skills that are either not present in our country, or not present in equal supply. An increase in the supply of anything of value is a net gain; and this is not just true ceteris parabus, but in each and every case. More of a good is better by definition. The only time that isn't the case is when we are prevented by law from employing our new-found surplus (by anti-immigration and minimum wage laws, for example).

Rhetoric against open immigration are frequently appeals to the "merit" of keeping the borders closed. The reasons such arguments must appeal to merit is because the merits of immigration are pervasive and overwhelming. In order to defeat the case for immigration, opponents must convince us that the demerits of an influx of immigrants outweigh the merits. So, they will argue that immigrants adversely impact that social order, drive down wages, increase unemployment and national debt, cause us to have to learn new languages and smell foreign foods. And, incredibly, they even say that immigration undermines democracy through the importation of anti-democratic sentiment.

The alternative to the merit-based policy is the rule-based policy, which is what we have today. There are rules defining who can come into the country to seek work. There are rules defining which countries the immigrants can come from. There are rules about what skills they must possess, how much money they must possess, and how many medical examinations they must pass. Every aspect of anti-immigration sentiment is codified in laws, in rules that act as barriers to a merit-based system settling the question by a proper weighing of all risks.

Currently, the question is set by the rules, and the rules are drafted by those who oppose immigration. However, if we were allowed to settle the question on a comparison of merits, then we would once and for all see whether the merits offered by the pro-immigration crowd outweigh the demerits offered by immigration's opponents.

Except that we do not actually have to wait for that day, because the evidence is already clear. Despite the heaping of additional costs on immigrants through the above-mentioned rules, they continue to come to America. Despite the many demerits cited against immigration, we continue to welcome immigrants into our communities. We buy their food, shop in their stores, hire them for labor both skilled and unskilled. Gauged by our economic actions, we spend every single day reaping the benefits of immigration. Judging from our actions, the merits outweigh the demerits. Immigration is net positive. We are all better off.

This leads to my final framework for analyzing the issue.

Immigration And Actions Versus Feelings
Also earlier this month, I wrote about how it is our actions, not our feelings, that determines our worth. This is related to the points I made in the previous section because, if we are going to talk about settling an issue on the merits of each position, we need to determine how we will assess merit.

Economics is a handy way to do this, because whenever you value something, you prove that you are willing to pay for it, even if you complain about the price you pay. When you no longer value something enough, you stop complaining because you stop paying for it. The jargon term for this is "revealed preference." To wit, what does it matter whether Sonic Charmer or anyone else complains about immigration if all opponents of immigration continue to make economic decisions consistent with the fact that they are economically better off when there are more immigrants around? They might say they dislike immigration, but their purchases suggest otherwise.

Expanding the lens a little bit, it is significant enough that the black market for illegal immigrant labor is sizable. The American community at large welcomes immigrants even despite the laws it has passed to try to fight their own preferences. Anti-immigration laws and immigration regulations are all just rules designed to fight the revealed preferences of Americans. We know we are better off, at least economically, when borders are relatively open. We know this so well that we have to threaten each other with jail time if one of us decides to act on it. Silly, right?

Well, the economic merits of immigration are overwhelming, and all of us act in reflection of that fact every day of our lives. It does not even matter how we think we feel about it. What matters only is our actions.

Immigration opponents could suggest at this point that there is more to the issue than economics. They would raise social, political, and cultural concerns against immigration and insist that these factors must also be considered with respect to immigration.

Fine, but then why does society act in opposition to those concerns at the end of the day?

Thus, our actions reflect an embrace of pro-immigration sentiment and a rejection of anti-immigration sentiment. All the rest is commentary.

Inspired by Alex Tabarrok, I thought it would fun to employ some recurring Stationary Waves concepts to defend immigration. What I have said above is certainly not an exhaustive treatment of the issue. In fact, what I've just written doesn't even come close to expressing every reason I am in favor of open immigration. Mostly, it was an exercise in applying my philosophical concepts to a particular issue.

It is encouraging to note that these concepts can be applied consistently.