Immigrant Song

So now you'd better stop and rebuild all your ruins,
For peace and trust can win the day despite of all your losing.

cauldron.jpgTyler Cowen has been posting up a storm recently about U.S. immigration policy. His latest proposal, while perhaps politically feasible, seems to have an obvious flaw. Cowen suggests that the U.S. should select for those immigrants who can either buy their way in, demonstrate work skills, or pass an IQ and English language proficiency test. But what would be the effect on, say, Mexico if we siphoned off their wealthiest, most talented, and smartest citizens? Wouldn't this tend to make Mexico less wealthy in the long run and a less attractive place to live? And wouldn't this give an even stronger incentive to poor, unskilled Mexicans to leave Mexico and look for greener pastures elsewhere?

I like Cowen's proposal to increase legal immigration significantly, thereby substituting legal immigrants for illegal immigrants. But I just can't bring myself to accept the various compromises he suggests, even though he may very well be right about the political reality. Doesn't it seem a bit cruel to impose harsher penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants - the same immigrants who risked life and limb and all of their worldly possessions to come to this country to make a better life for themselves and their families? Sure, harsher penalties may deter the marginal immigrant, but what about those who still choose to come? Do we really want to make their lives that much more difficult?

Cowen lists the following objections to a laissez faire immigration policy:

  1. American cities and suburbs would become ringed with shantytowns
  2. American hospitals and medical facilities would become overburdened
  3. Some immigrants would pose threats to public order
  4. Assimilation might become more difficult, as the numbers of immigrants from each region increase
  5. The political backlash would be enormous

Problems 1 and 2 are the direct result of government. Besides public property, where exactly would these shantytowns be built? And were it not for some people's willingness to use other people's money as their own, immigrants would not overburden hospitals, for the same reason immigrants would not overburden Ferrari dealerships.

What one could reasonably argue is that a drastic increase in immigration might overburden our charitable impulses. But the important thing to remember here is that according to the very logic of altruism, this is a good thing. These immigrants, upon entering this country, do not suddenly need more medical care than they did previously (Barring, of course, the very likely possibility that they were injured trying to get in). It is simply that their need is more visible and immediate when they live closer to us.

In other words, if we have a moral obligation to pay for poor U.S. citizens' medical care, then we also have a moral obligation to pay for poor Mexican citizens' medical care. Morality does not stop at our country's borders. While it may be easier for those who claim to be altruists to ignore the suffering of those living in other countries, this does not excuse their inconsistency. Better the poor should live close enough to us so that we feel inclined to help them, instead of altogether ignoring them as we do now.

Problem 3 is somewhat ambiguous. How do immigrants pose a threat to public order? Some immigrants may be willing to commit crimes and disrupt the public order, but what is special about their status as immigrants in this regard? Is the claim that immigrants are more likely to be criminals than non-immigrants? Even if this is the case, do we really want to punish the innocent along with the not-yet-guilty?

Problem 4 is a typical conservative objection, but I've never seen it to be a problem in the long-term. The first generation may not assimilate, but why should we assume the later ones won't either? I have close friends whose parents and grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from places like Cuba, Iran, and Russia, and while it is true that some of these elderly people did not learn English, their children certainly did. If our society was a bit more tolerant and accepting of immigrant groups, immigrants would feel less of a need to isolate themselves into their own separate communities. Over time, immigrants will assimilate, just as they've always done in the past.

Problem 5 is true. Since our country has been in existence, a large portion of the population has always been fiercely xenophobic, and the claims against immigrants have not changed much over the years. It used to be the Irish, the Jews, and the Chinese who could not assimilate. Now it's the Hispanics. It used to be that immigrants would bring with them their opium dens and corrupt our innocent white women. Now we are afraid of unsettling the "public order." We don't hear much lately about how immigrants are stealing our low-class jobs, primarily because we are too busy complaining about how the Indians are stealing our middle class jobs. The song truly does remain the same.

In a sense, I can appreciate Cowen's efforts to make immigrants' lives a little bit better through policy compromise. But I've never been one to concern myself with political impracticalities. Even though nearly all of us are in some fashion immigrants, the majority thinks that living in this country is a privilege reserved for themselves.

But the majority is wrong, as it often is. Economists should know this better than anyone else, based on the average person?s lack of understanding of basic economics. (Incidentally, Cowen?s colleague, Bryan Caplan, has done much work on the subject of public economic illiteracy.) Yet when it comes to topics like free trade, economists consistently go against popular opinion and instead praise the virtues of a laissez faire policy. Why are economists willing to stick to their guns in the context of free trade, but then cow to public pressure when immigration is at issue? The only economist I can recall who was fairly outspoken on this issue was the late, great Julian Simon.

We already have enough people who are willing to compromise for political reasons. They are called politicians. Economists should at the very least outline the ideal policy before recommending smaller steps along that path.

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Instead of just testing

Instead of just testing immigrants for IQ why not also test the people born here and evict the dummies? America is our collective property, isn't it?

Immigration restrictions are

Immigration restrictions are the concession that civilisation makes to the nativist majority -- just as the welfare state is the concession that civilisation makes to the communist majority -- as the price of being able to attempt to be free and civilised in other areas.

The majority of people hate freedom; immigration restrictions, like the welfare state, are one of the bones we must throw them so as to retain even the possibility of freedom for the rest of us. The alternative to appeasing the instinctively nativist, communist masses is, by one road or another, totalitarianism.

This is a question of

This is a question of incentives. Get rid of the welfare state, and people will not immigrate for the loot they can extract from others. They will come for the freedom. Presto, no more problem, no more hypocrisy, no more false dichotomies from the statists or anti-immigration "paleolibertarians."

(On a parallel note, I think it foolish in the extreme to eliminate either the gun laws OR the drug laws, as it would likely result in enormous backlash. Both must be eliminated simultaneously, to make it perfectly clear that the key issue is RESPONSIBILITY. The prohibitionist nightmare of "everyone rushing out to do drugs now that they're legal" wouldn't even be a blip on the radar if people were willing (and able) to defend themselves and their property. After all, "an armed society is a polite society.")

Micha, Great post.


Great post. Immigration is an extrodinarily complex issue when you dig into it. I think it's important to dig into the heads of people, and try to really understand why there's such a viceral reaction to it.

My own view is that it has something to do with deterioration of community. There's a long tradition of distrusting "travelers" and "wanderers" and so on. The reason is because towns with lots of migrants tend to have less reputational social structures governing behavior. People come and go, and since they won't have to stay and deal with the consequences of their actions, they behave differently than if they were permanent residents.

If you listen to people in southern California complain about Mexican immigrants, this is what they're talking about. It's a real phenomenon, and it complicates the immigration question significantly, I think.

I think the shantytowns

I think the shantytowns argument is overblown. The various ethnic neighborhoods that most cultured people celebrate and enjoy are nothing more than shantytowns crammed into the middle of a city. Chinatown is a Chinese shantytown ghetto. The Irish and Italian districts, too. There's no reason to think the Hispanic ghettos would turn out any worse than the Irish and Italians.

- Josh