Brad DeLong tries to convert me

Yesterday on The Volokh Conspiracy I wrote that modern liberals should become classical liberals. Increased immigration is superior to increased spending on the welfare state, whether for the poor or otherwise; see the link for the full argument. Brad DeLong felt I was pointing in the wrong direction. He responded:

…Tyler should become a liberal, for where the rubber meets the road in modern American politics it is simply not the case that immigration and social insurance are substitutes. The labor side of the Democratic coalition doesn’t like large-scale immigration because it puts downward pressure on the wages of the unskilled. The nativist side of the Republican coalition doesn’t like large-scale immigration because… because… because it threatens “our” culture, because it makes terrorism easier, because it threatens to make America look not like America anymore. In the immortal words of Margaret Thatcher, immigration threatens us because we will be “swamped by people of a different race.”

Read Brad’s entire post, entitled “Yes, Tyler Cowen! You Really Are a Liberal! You Just Don’t Know It Yet!”. I have the not-so-secret fear that co-blogger Alex will agree with his title, though perhaps for different reasons.

On the substance of the matter, Brad’s response puzzles me. First, if we think increased immigration is a superior recipe, should we not try to make it more feasible through our advocacy? Why not think big and push for classical liberalism? (It’s actually far more complicated than this, here are forty pages of Cowen on the topic, but for the hard cores only.)

Second, we have had a huge immigration reform in the 1960s, another significant set of changes in the Reagan years, and Bush has proposed yet further immigration reform. The recent Bush plan appears stillborn, but the issue is hardly a dead one. Even if you don’t think we will take in more immigrants anytime soon, we may well take in fewer. The same is true in Western Europe. I don’t see current immigration levels as carved in stone, quite the contrary.

More directly, welfare/educational/fiscal issues appear central to the immigration question. Try reading these posts from PrestoPundit, or Victor David Hanson’s Mexifornia. Here is an [ugh] Pat Buchanan quotation, you don’t have to agree with him to know that many voters do. Both in reality and rhetoric, extensive welfare systems make it harder to accommodate more immigrants (noting that some welfare will ease their transitions). The Western Europeans face this constraint every day, it would not be an overstatement to describe it as an obsession of theirs.

Finally, I’ll offer Brad a deal. I will refuse to vote for the Presidential candidate he specifies (guess who that might be), if he will write in his blog, with no subsequent irony or repudiation the following: “The classical liberal recipe of increased immigration is superior to strengthening the welfare state. I just don’t think it will or can happen, so I will advocate the next best thing.” As a pure freebie, I will in advance volunteer the concession that most tax systems should be mildly progressive rather than flat or regressive.

Since Brad and I each think we are on the verge of converting each other, surely some huge misunderstanding is going on. That being said, I think this kind of direct written exchange is massively undervalued in academia (I would like to see an entire journal of direct written debates, for one thing). My compliments to Brad and to the blogosphere.

Update: Read Matt Yglesias as well. I’ll add that immigration is only one alternative to domestic welfare, why not a helicopter drop of dollar bills over Haiti? At certain margins immigration and welfare are or can be complements (we all agree on this), but at some point the modern liberal still must resort to anti-cosmopolitan intuitions.


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