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Thoughts on Immigration

In the Spring of 2020, concerned about the effects on liberty of the overreaction to covid, my intrepid Mercatus Center colleague, Veronique de Rugy, and I co-founded a small e-mail listserv titled “The Bastiat List.” The focus of this still-active listserv has since broadened to include topics beyond covid. One of the members of the Bastiat List is our GMU Econ colleague Dan Klein, who shared with the list this recent essay by Noah Carl (whose work I generally much admire). In this essay Mr. Carl argues that the number of potential immigrants today is simply too large to make open borders feasible.

I share below a slightly modified version of my response to Dan’s message. (A prefatory note: I’m willing to be persuaded that open borders of the sort that America had during her first century are today unwise. But, first, I don’t believe that the case against such open borders is as obviously solid as most people today assume it to be; and, second, even if what is not on the policy table is open borders à la 1850, my remarks below reveal my sympathy for dramatically easing immigration into the United States, including eliminating all vestiges of immigration quotas.)


Here are six thoughts in response to the Noah Carl piece on immigration shared by Dan.

First, America had almost completely open borders until the 1920s, the most-notable exception being the 1880s exclusion of the Chinese. This openness vastly improved our economy (and is why nearly every American on this list is in America). What reason have we to think that that which was true in the past is no longer true in the present? It will be said, of course, that was then, this is now, so….

Second, we today are arguably better able to absorb – or as Noah Carl says, “accommodate” – immigrants than we were 100 or more years ago. (One of my great regrets is that I never followed up on Julian Simon’s offer to me that he and I work together on this idea of immigrant absorption, which I first suggested to him in a telephone conversation in the Spring of 1996. Soon after his offer I became president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and simply didn’t have time for doing that kind of research. Julian then died suddenly in February 1998. I did, though, in 2002 write the short piece linked above on this question. I realize that this 2002 essay of mine is hardly definitive, but I believe that it is nevertheless highly suggestive.)

Third, I’m unsure how much credit to put in the survey data as used by Carl. Talk is cheap; it’s easy to answer ‘yes’ to a surveyor who asks if you’d like to emigrate. It’s much more costly actually to emigrate. That said….

Fourth, I don’t doubt that the number of people who actually would emigrate, if given the opportunity under existing circumstances to do so, is very large. But as more and more people emigrate, the circumstances within countries change as result of that emigration. Although the direction and details of change would vary from country to country, it’s at least plausible that in many countries now populated with lots of people who say that they would like to emigrate, changes caused by emigration would gradually reduce the attractiveness of further emigration. Most obviously, emigration would, at least in the short run, push low-skilled workers’ wages up in countries from which working-age people are emigrating – and in the short run push low-skilled workers’ wages down in countries to which working-age people are emigrating – thus reducing the attractiveness of emigration to people still remaining in their countries of birth. Such emigration might also prompt government officials in those countries to adopt policies that increase the attractiveness of remaining in those countries.

Fifth, the presumption of liberty ought to be strong. As I see matters, opponents of more-liberal immigration have not overcome this presumption. Their arguments are consistently inconsistent (such as ‘Immigrants steal jobs and are parasites through the welfare state!’). Of course it’s impossible to foretell the exact manner that many new immigrants will be absorbed into, integrated into, and change the American economy and American society. This impossibility is often taken to be a reason to keep immigration tightly restricted, as the imagination easily can – and does – conjure up images of worst-case scenarios. But to restrict immigration is to governmentalize human association. The government restricts who its subjects are permitted to hire, befriend, marry, socialize with, and have as neighbors.

Six (and related to point number five), in his 2021 book, Immigration and Freedom, Chandran Kukathas explains that government control of immigration is not merely control of foreigners; such control inevitably involves control on the actions of citizens. Think, for example, of the huge, intrusive set of controls now in place in the U.S. to ensure that employers don’t hire people who the U.S. government has yet to declare are eligible to work in the U.S. Do we trust government officials with this power? (I don’t.)

One final remark: When I was president of FEE (1997-2001) I had among my employees a young man named Tommy and a young woman named Claudia. Tommy is a native New Yorker; Claudia was an Argentine citizen born and raised in Argentina of Argentine parents. Tommy and Claudia fell in love with each other and wished to marry. Although Claudia was living and working in the U.S. legally, Claudia’s and Tommy’s attempt to marry was significantly delayed because some government bureaucrats worried that the marriage wasn’t real. Claudia and Tommy did eventually get permission from the state to marry – muchas gracias, state – but the hassles were real, time-consuming, and caused much anguish. How many are the couples whose luck was not in the end as ‘good’ as that of Tommy and Claudia?