Inconvenient questions about immigration

MR readers will know I hold a relatively cosmopolitan stance, sympathetic to immigration, including the immigration of low-skilled labor.  But notice the tension with Milton Friedman’s classic stance that businesses should maximize profit only, without regard for broader social concerns.  If businesses have this liberty to behave selfishly, why do not governments?  Similarly, cannot a mother give priority to her child, rather than selling it to save ten babies in Haiti?  Why should governments be the unique carrier of cosmopolitan obligations?

I see a few possible stances:

1. Randall Parker thinks Western governments should be be elitist, nationally selfish, and determined to maximize national average IQ. 

2. Perhaps government holds special obligations.  Robert Goodin argued that government should be utilitarian while other institutions pursue selfish concerns.  But where does this dichotomy come from, and still, why should the concerns of a government stretch past its citizenry?

3. Peter Singer and Shelley Kagan believe that all entities, whether collective or individual, should take the most cosmopolitan view possible.  For Singer this includes the consideration of other species.  Few people are willing to live the implications of this.

4. We have not (yet?) found a universally correct perspective from all vantage points.  We have public obligations, private obligations, and no clear algorithm for squaring the two.  We nonetheless can find local improvements consistent with both, or which do not greatly damage our private interests.  Freer immigration, even when costly, is one of the cheapest and most liberty-consistent ways of addressing our (admittedly ill-defined) obligations to others.  But surely those obligations are not zero.  This implies, by the way, that Friedman’s maxim is not strictly accurate.

Note that libertarians are often extreme nationalists when it comes to foreign policy ("Darfur is no concern of ours") but extreme cosmopolitans when it comes to immigration. 

My views are closest to #4.  Our inability to fully embrace cosmopolitanism is a central reason why the case for open borders is not more persuasive.  Many people hear the cosmopolitan call and sense, instinctively, that something is wrong.  But when we view the argument in explicitly economic terms — what is the best way of satisfying marginal obligations which are surely not zero? — the case for a liberal immigration policy is stronger.


I believe that Friedman's argument point about profits is really one of specialization and spheres of repsonsibility. That is, it is the responsibility of businesses to earn profits according to the rules. It is the responsibility of governments to structure the rules so that businesses that 'play by the legal rules' do well also do good (or at least no evil) at the same time. If the government fails at this responsibility, then the government is to blame when nice guys stagnate and fail and mean guys succeed.

The same logic does apply to governments below the national level. Voters in Idaho are not expected to consider what is best for citizens of Maine and North Carolina when voting for governor. And voters in Phoenix are not expected to take Bostonians into account when choosing a mayor. At these levels, voters can ignore such outside concerns because there are higher levels of government where such concerns are handled. But when you get to the level of the nation, the governmental organizations above it are sparse, weak, and not very democratic. And so countries are put in the (admittedly awkward) position of trying to take into account the well being of non-citizens.

How should the concerns of non-citizens be handled? They should be given some weight, but less weight than those of citizens. How much less weight? There is no right answer for every occasion, but off the top of my head, I would say the weighting depends on at least proximity, frequency of interactions, relative levels of well-being. By these measures, our responsibility to take into account the concerns of Mexicans and Canadians would be higher than for Albanians, and it would be higher for Mexicans than Canadians because of the differences in well-being.

when you list answers, such as in a test, or as in this post, and the 'right' answer is the longest, your reasoning is weak. The alternatives are staw men, and the 'best' answer is a muddle.

"If businesses have this liberty to behave selfishly, why do not governments?" Ah, but which level of government is the unit of relevance? And do we only consider the utility of the current residents? Or do we consider the utility of present and future residents? If we consider future residents, should we only consider the children of current residents?

If we could somehow spawn off an alternate universes, one in which the U.S. had strict immigration and one in which it didn't, we would expect the one with strict immigration controls to be "better" by several measures, assuming the nativists are right.

We can't spawn off alternate universes unfortunately. But perhaps before putting up a wall across the continent, it would be sensible to try it out on a smaller scale first? After all, if immigration controls are desirable at the national level (to prevent low IQ, high crime immigrant populations from moving to the U.S.), wouldn't it also imply that intrastate borders are also desirable? If I don't want low IQ, high crime immigrants crossing national borders, why would I want them crossing my city or state borders?

It would be much less costly to "secure" a city's borders than the 2000 miles of national border between the U.S. and Mexico. If immigration restrictions are beneficial, cities with strict immigration controls should do much better than cities with relatively open borders.

Of course, then the question becomes, what outcomes would we measure? Lifespan? Birth rates? GDP? GDP/capita?

For example, which is more economically successful -- city A, consisting of a 100 residents with a $10000/capita income, or a city B, consisting of a 1000 residents with a $1500/capita income? Is city A, with a homogenous culture and less crime better than a city B, with a diverse culture, but more crime? Is a city A with a lower median IQ, but higher variance (and thus, more geniuses) better than city B with a higher median IQ, but lower variance (and thus, fewer geniuses).

Of course, given all of these disparate measures of well-being, the typical economist response would be to look at the revealed preference of the economic actors. Therefore, I suggest that we put a wall around Randall Parker's city with same immigration laws that he proposes for the rest of the U.S. (i.e. they're free to leave, but no one may become a resident unless they pass whatever IQ tests/racial quotas he advocates. )

The results should be enlightening, regardless of the outcome.

I thought business are encouraged to act selfishly because of Econ 101 arguments that such selfish behavior generally produces Pareto-optimal results for society as a whole. (I'm not an economist, there are probably more advanced economic arguments.) It is interesting that this often seems to get re-stated as "by definition a corporation's goal is to maximize profits," as if reasoning such as "by definition a hit man's goal is to kill people in exchange for pay" is compelling.

Milton Friedman himself has expressed substantial doubts about the effects of mass immigration. He wrote in 1995:

"The greatly increased ratio of low-cost labor to capital has raised the wages of highly skilled labor and the return on physical capital but has put downward pressure on the wages of low-skilled labor. The result has been a sharp widening in the differential between the wages of highly skilled and low-skilled labor in the United States and other advanced countries.

"If the widening of the wage differential is allowed to proceed unchecked, it threatens to create within our own country a social problem of major proportions. We shall not be willing to see a group of our population move into Third World conditions at the same time that another group of our population becomes increasingly well off. Such stratification is a recipe for social disaster. The pressure to avoid it by protectionist and other similar measures will be irresistible."

P.S. I would hope Houstan would make the same decision to let the refugees in, even knowing what they know now, because they had no where else to really go. They are americans and they are america's responsibility. But we should avoid letting in more high crime groups in to America that would make a city want to think twice before inviting them in after a disaster.

P.S. here is a link of an NPR broadcast: "Houston examines post-katrina spike in violent crime".

See, all immigration doesn't always help the host locale. But's let's be practical, rather than ideological. We can limit immigration from without the US, without limiting immigration within. Just because your reduction to absurdity says one leads to the other, doesn't mean we have to do both. Open borders is what WILL lead to more gated communities, due to people shielding themselves. Only simple, rational calculations by people will be required for this outcome, not some complex reduction to absurdity, which is what your outcome requires.

scottynx -- your comments raise another very interesting question. Over what time scale should we judge the effects of proposed legislation? In the short term, allowing the Katrina refugees to immigrate to Houston may well have caused a spike in crime. If Houston had built a wall around itself, and refused residency to anyone who did not pass an IQ test, it might have excluded most of the refugees. But how would such a policy affect the long-term health of the city? At what time would we declare such a policy a success or failure?

The obvious libertarian answer: governments are providing a service to their citizens, so like any business they should be judged based on their "profits", i.e. number of satisfied citizens minus unsatisfied citizens. Bigger is better, and more satisfied is better than less satisfied. Under this model, governments should try to expand, expell undesirables, and take in desirables. Sounds about right to me.

Regarding "It presumes that everyone who wants in wants to fully join the community. This is simply not true for a huge portion of the Latin immigrant population."

That is BS. Every Latin immigrant I know wants to fully join in the community as much as any other previous wave has. Adults have hard times learning languages, my great-grandparents who came to the U.S. had a hard time learning English, and they hung out with ethnic societies. Their kids spoke English fine.

Christopher Rasch writes:
[scottynx -- your comments raise another very interesting question. Over what time scale should we judge the effects of proposed legislation? In the short term, allowing the Katrina refugees to immigrate to Houston may well have caused a spike in crime. If Houston had built a wall around itself, and refused residency to anyone who did not pass an IQ test, it might have excluded most of the refugees. But how would such a policy affect the long-term health of the city? At what time would we declare such a policy a success or failure?]

Here is how violent crime is playing out over different immigrant generations, according to Harvard immigration lover Robert J. Sampson:
[ Indeed, the first-generation immigrants (those born outside the United States) in our study were 45 percent less likely to commit violence than were third-generation Americans, adjusting for family and neighborhood background. Second-generation immigrants were 22 percent less likely to commit violence than the third generation.]
Excerpt from "Open Doors Don't Invite Criminals", by Robert J. Sampson

As Steve Sailer says about that paragraph:
[...So, by importing vast numbers of Hispanic immigrants now, according to Sampson's data, we're just making an unholy mess for ourselves in the future.]
Excerpt from "Sampson's Silly Theory on Immigrants and Crime"

As for the "long-term health of the city", rising immigrant crime over successive generations bodes ill.

Speaking of Friedman, his introduction to “Capitalism and Freedom† he takes to task JFK’s famous inaugural line “ask not what your country can do†. . . and rightly spells out the proper relationship between government and citizen. I mention that simply to clarify what I believe a “selfish† government to look like. If the only responsibility a company has is to its share holders, then the only responsibility the government has is to the citizen.

Not what is best for all people in the name of an ideology with the individual at its core; an ideology to which I adhere. But what is best for the citizenry. If an immigrant working under the table is a small legal nuisance, then by definition of a small legal nuisance, it is probably not harming the citizenry. However, when a group of immigrants begin to pose a threat, in anyway, to the stability of the citizens’ society then the government has an obligation to the citizenry and bears no responsibility whatsoever to the immigrant. To do otherwise is to place the individual rights of the non-citizen over what is in the interest of the citizen.

The basic economic arguments for reasonably open immigration policies become blunted when national security is an undeniable issue, and whenever the current group of immigrants are not required to assimilate as earlier generations of immigrants have done.

What is happening today is that the differing sides of the issue are drawing very extreme lines in my view, and whatever reasonable solutions that might enable us to secure our borders for national security reasons, and also allow for guest worker status, are not even being considered.

Also consider the people promoting each idea. It sounds great from a purely ideological standpoint to support a good idea regardless of who puts it out there. However, if supporting a good idea will also propel a known violator of individual rights into the most powerful political position in the world, then this good idea is suddenly very expensive. One issue voters come to mind as examples of why such practices are bad for the long run.

Border control to keep out "enemy combatants" is no guarantee of safety: the Tube bombers were British ( A better strategy is to see if needlessly antagonising people to that level of desperation can be avoided.

Could someone please explain to me why it is necessarily true that a government is not acting in its own best interests (that is, hopefully, the best interests of its constituents) by allowing open and free immigration? Perhaps I am misunderstanding Tyler, but why can't it be argued that a government is perfectly free to act selfishly and only pursue its own self interests, and allowing free and open immigration would further this very pursuit?

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