2013-10-08

Immigration And The Real World

Well, Tyler Cowen sure caused a stir yesterday. Under the auspices of commenting on a study that purportedly found that immigration "had a positive effect" on the wages of receiving nations, he launched into a full-fledged criticism of the open borders concept:
In my view the open borders advocates are doing the pro-immigration cause a disservice.  The notion of fully open borders scares people, it should scare people, and it rubs against their risk-averse tendencies the wrong way.  I am glad the United States had open borders when it did, but today there is too much global mobility and the institutions and infrastructure and social welfare policies of the United States are, unlike in 1910, already too geared toward higher per capita incomes than what truly free immigration would bring.  Plunking 500 million or a billion poor individuals in the United States most likely would destroy the goose laying the golden eggs.  (The clever will note that this problem is smaller if all wealthy countries move to free immigration at the same time, but of course that is unlikely.)
You can find Nathan Smith's response to Cowen at OpenBorders.info here, although in the main I'm not sure whether I agree with where Smith is going in his response. Firstly, I don't think taxing immigration represents a truly open borders solution. Secondly, by the time Smith finishes describing the many provisos and quid pro quos he would like to add to "open" immigration, it starts to look very much unlike an open borders solution. After we've established all the regulatory infrastructure required to prevent them from voting or drawing on welfare benefits, we will have essentially replicated the current US immigration regime. No thanks...

A Brief Criticism Of Cowen
For my part, I would criticize Cowen much differently. First: there is no reason to believe that an open borders regime would result in an influx of more than the existing population of the United States. I don't know where Cowen gets this 500 million number, but he certainly doesn't cite a source for it, and it's a difficult one to take seriously. Canada, for example, has much more open borders to immigration than the United States, and yet its population continues to be about 10% of the US population, while its economic and social systems are highly comparable to those here in America. If relaxing immigration standards really did result in mass-exodi then Canada's population would be growing at much faster rate than ours. Instead, we see hardly any difference (1.1% compared to 0.7%, according to World Bank via Google).

So my first criticism of Cowen is that his spooky numbers are outrageous. My second criticism is that he could make the same argument against importing, say, coffee instead of labor and the whole principle would fall apart. Everyone knows that low coffee prices more than make up for using import quotas to protect domestic industries. That is Econ 101 stuff.

But More Importantly
More important than Cowen's hackneyed criticism of the open borders concept, though, is what you'll find in the comments section of the post. For example, someone calling herself "jerseycityjoan" makes the following point:
They even forget that the people whose money contributes to their wealth have to count for something. They are quite willing to see just about all of us make Mexican-style wages in a Mexican-style economy. They forget if none of us can buy anything beyond the bare necessities of life — if that — many of them are sunk.
Later, someone calling him-or-her-self "Errorr" says this:
Actually I think we shoild [sic] allow anybody to come to America but only issue a green card if they work in Detroit or similarly depressed area. That would be in addition to other normal immigration. Detroit is still better than Guatemala.
"TallDave" has this to say:
Open borders are great economically, the problem is the people from countries with bad institutions move to the countries with good institutions, and tend to bring their failed institutions with them. That’s a problem in a democratic republic.
These comments - the likes of which you can find all over the place, such as RWCG.blogspot.com and iSteve and similar places all seek to reiterate the same basic concept, which is this:

  • American life is so much superior to foreign life that anything that might make us "more Central American" or "more like Mexico" or "more like one of those other places" fundamentally reduces Americans' quality of life.
  • American political institutions are less corrupt than those that exist in the countries from which we receive immigrants.
To be sure, some of the countries that give us immigrants suffer from low average quality of life and/or political corruption that rivals our own. But this is far from being a foregone conclusion.

One of the things one discovers from international travel is just exactly how bad it is elsewhere. I've been to a few foreign countries myself, and what I've learned is that there are places in the United States of America that are much worse of than places in Central America or Asia. In fact, there are a lot of places out there where the standard of living is not very bad at all.

So the first problem here is the idea that all immigrants immigrate because they are suffering and miserable in their home countries. This is preposterous. Just because a person moves from point A to B doesn't mean every aspect of life is better at B. Sometimes life just takes you somewhere. It is also possible to have a higher quality of life in an overall worse location, depending on personal circumstances.

The second problem is that, in the real world, life is actually starting to get pretty good outside of the United States. Many American expatriates live abroad in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Many African and South Asian immigrants are turning to China, Europe, and Canada as their new immigration destinations of choice. Even Mexico and Brazil are gaining a lot of new immigrants from surrounding nation. People like Steve Sailer seem to base their whole understanding of life in other countries on what may have been true in 1962, according to the movies. Or else, they bury you in numerical data that offers no one any perspective in what daily life is like.

For what it's worth, I traveled to both Puerto Rico and Costa Rica this year, and found life in Costa Rica to be much better. And Puerto Rico is the United States of America. People who live in Costa Rica - the average, every-day people - earn less money than we do in the United States, but it is not at all clear to me that their quality of life is significantly lower. They enjoy modern conveniences, good health care, and an active lifestyle. There is plenty of food and water around. They're not living in Dallas-sized mansions, but they're also not hurting.

The fundamental question becomes: How bad would your life have to be in order for you to be convinced that you should relocate across the globe? The answer to that question is, "Pretty damn bad, or else life's twists and turns just took me to a new place." At any rate, life is steadily improving outside of the United States of America, and the incentive to move to the USA is not what it used to be. It's possible to have a comfortable, happy life outside of the States.

The more the USA closes its borders - or even continues its preposterous closed-border regime - the less likely it is that we will receive any ingenious new immigrants. They'll flock to the countries that are already encouraging them to immigrate: Canada, Mexico, China, etc. Once there, they'll establish themselves and set to doing what immigrants do best: innovating and engaging in entrepreneurship. And who will lose out on this big economic win? The United States.

Conclusion
In the real world, life abroad is good and getting better all the time. If you're desperate and in Honduras, there is a good chance you'll find a happier life in Mexico than in the United States. But life is also getting better in Honduras. The old days of America's economic superiority are coming to a close, caused in part by our insane inability to recognize the good of free trade - including free trade in the labor market.

Close the borders. Watch us fail. But at least Steve Sailer's property value will remain high. Or, if it doesn't, at least he'll still have white neighbors. And in the end, that's what it's all about.