Rationally Speaking #243 - Bryan Caplan on "The Case for Open Borders"Rationally Speaking Podcast
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- 12 Nov 2019
The idea of open borders -- letting people move freely between countries, taking a job wherever they can find a job they want -- is still a pretty fringe position, politically speaking. But economist Bryan Caplan makes a compelling case for it in his new graphic nonfiction book, "Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration," illustrated by cartoonist Zach Weinersmith. In this episode, Julia questions Bryan about several aspects of his case.
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Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Julia Gillard, and my guest today is Bryan Caplan.
Bryan is an economist at George Mason University. And repeat, guest on rationally speaking, we're going to be discussing today Brian's latest book, which has been climbing the New York Times bestseller list. It's titled Open Borders The Science and Ethics of Immigration, and it's co-authored with Zach Weiner Smith, who is also a regular on rationally speaking. And it's a very dynamically illustrated case for open borders. So that's what we're going to be talking about today. Brian, welcome back to rationally speaking.
It's fantastic to be back, Julia.
I really enjoyed the book, as I mentioned to you. And Zach's not here with us today, but but his illustration of you as the kind of jaunty guide to open borders, leading the reader graphically, literally leading the reader through the arguments for open borders with. I thought he captured your essence really perfectly.
Yeah, I thought he did a great job. He was my number one choice of artist in the world. And I didn't even know him when I was starting the project, but I somehow talked him into it.
Yeah, he was just the perfect. When I heard about this project a year or two years ago, I just thought, oh, that's that's the sort of thing that, you know, you hear about. And you're like, I can't believe that doesn't exist already. That's just the perfect thing to exist. Yeah, he he sort of captured your like you're a sort of enemy and a confident nothingness or I don't know how to describe it, but your spirit really shines through these these simple line drawings.
So, yeah, this is a, you know, graphic novel or graphic nonfiction guide to Open Borders with a bunch of illustrations and some charts and graphs. But it's a very quick and fun read that happened at the same time taxand a lot of very dense argumentation and an insight so highly recommended. And like for the record, I'm pretty sympathetic to this argument. If not open borders, then, you know, significantly increasing the rate of immigration to the US.
But I'm going to focus in our conversation predominantly on my hesitations or objections, if that's where the meat is. But that's all, you know, for the record, against the background of of large agreement. So, Brian, why don't you start off just by defining what you mean by open borders and maybe clear up any common misconceptions that you find people have about the concept?
Right. So Open Borders is a legal regime where in slogan form, anyone can kill anyone can take a job anywhere. The more complicated, complicated way that I like to describe it is unless you belong in jail, you are allowed to live and work wherever you want. So you are still stuck in prison. But that's not what Open Borders is about. But if you are someone where you haven't done anything, where you belong in jail, then you are free to live and work in any country that you wish.
So one thing that people often assume this means is literally no walls, no, no like checkpoints. There's just nothing separating geographically separating countries from each other. Is that what you mean? Right.
So no. So, yeah, I'd like to say open borders still means there is a border in the book. I don't talk at all about whether or not to get rid of checkpoints or places where you get your papers checked or what have you. I think there's a lot to be said for that, too. So a lot of the pleasure of driving around the European Union is that you don't get checked at all. You can go through borders at 70 miles per hour.
Right. And of course, you know, that is an inconvenience. So a lot of the reason why more people don't travel between the US and Canada now is probably that you have to actually get checked. Right. So if you're at Niagara Falls, it's a bit of a pain. But, you know, those are fairly minor issues compared to the enormous losses of just saying a person can't move to another country at all.
And I noticed that you referred to get a job wherever you want. You didn't talk about citizenship. Is that not part of the definition?
No, it's not part of the definition. And, you know, that's just a much more complicated issue. I've got no strong views against letting people be citizens. And I mean, a lot of what I ultimately think is not letting foreigners vote is what got what is what got us here in the first place. Right. The very fact that they are treated this way, probably a lot of it is that they're not able to vote. But, you know, there are the concerns that I talked about in the book about a lot come very soon, they might go and change policies and so on.
So, yeah, I do have a chapter on the possible political dangers of immigration where the end I come say it doesn't seem like a very big deal. But at the same point, if it's just if this is the sticking issue, if someone says, well, I don't mind them living here, working here, but I'm worried about them voting, then I would say that it would be this would be a very foolish hill to die on.
And your your support for open borders is both moral and and economic or empirical. Right. You know, both of those.
Yeah. So any and actually what I do in the book is try to show how almost any moral view you've ever heard of is very supportive of open borders. But yes. In terms of. The actual effects of them borders. The main thing that economists have done on this is try to figure out, well, if anyone could take a job anywhere, what would be the overall economic effects? And the background here is we have this whole theory of international trade that says that the gains to trade come from moving things from where they have low value to where they have high value.
Right. And of course, this is what's going on with, say, trading oil. You move it from a place where people have way more oil than they would ever use to a place where they really need it. And then both sides wind up gaining. Or you can at an earlier times, you actually would go to Antarctica, get a big pile of ice and then sail it to the equator before it melted because the ice is worthless in Antarctica, but highly valuable in Jamaica.
So anyway, then when researchers try to figure out what are the economic gains in immigration, they basically apply the same standard method from trade models. But they get a much more dramatic answer because whereas for goods, the actual level of trade barriers in the world is now quite low overall. But for labor, it's still astronomical. You know, this is why just moving from one country to another can greatly raise or lower your earnings. And then these regulations affect so many people.
So when you multiply a large loss of keeping talent trapped in low productivity countries times a large number of such people, then you get these enormous gains. And that's why there is a slogan that I talk about a lot, that open borders would ultimately double the production of mankind. Of course, this is a very rough estimate, but this is for economists. The central effect of open borders would be to have a very large increase in production and then most of the rest of the book I talk about.
All right. Well, are there are some other downsides that are not only real, but are so big that they would be worth how they would it would actually be more important than doubling the production of mankind. Now, in terms of the ethics, I just go over a lot of different perspectives. There's a section on utilitarianism, on egalitarians, interested in your rights. What's your. All right.
So you actually said I'm really influenced by philosopher Michael Humor, who's so he's probably best known for his book, The Problematic Authority. But, you know, you could describe his general moral view is this pluralism and the saying that there are a lot of different moral principles that all have some merit and a lot of sound more reasoning comes down to finding moral presumptions or prima facia moral principles, which, however, could be outweighed by other considerations. So, for example, know prima facia right to move from one country to another.
That seems like a pretty basic thing. Right. And yet it's not absolute. So, you know, if you're moving from one country, another would go and spread it. Horrible disease. That would seem like a pretty good reason to say I'm sorry. It may not seem fair, but there are many lives at stake here. Or if you're moving, we're going to lead to some kind of political disaster or something along those lines. So then the way that I structured the book as I first talk about this moral presumption, about why, at least on the surface, it seems like a pretty bad thing to do in order the person to say that they're not allowed to leave Haiti and then talk about all of the reasons why this prima facie judgment could actually be wrong.
Right. In other words, overcoming the presumption you just like there's a presumption against stealing from another person. But it's not absolute. You know, if you have to steal in order to save your life, then that seems like it's OK to do right now. You probably want to pay it back afterwards and apologize to the person. But still, it's not something where you say you should never do it. Or there's the famous example of Immanuel Kant saying you shouldn't lie to save someone's life, which seems crazy to almost everyone seems crazy to me.
And yet they also say there is still a presumption against lying. Right. And it's one that I would tell my kids looking on, even if there's not seem to be any harm caused by the lie. Still, it's the kind of thing where there need to be a really good argument to lie before you would do it, rather than something where as long as you can see the harm, then it's OK to do it. Got it.
Yeah. So you're kind of approaching this question in inverse from most people, I assume, where you're saying, look, this should be our default.
We should have we should need a really good reason to not have open borders, whereas other people have kind of a status quo, as the default may be, and are looking for some really good reason to justify open borders.
Is that right? Yeah. So, I mean, I think that in politics, people are more likely to have a status quo presumption or just a presumption that their ideology has all the answers. And then you have to really work to get them to say maybe the status quo is bad or maybe your ideology is wrong. And yeah.
So yeah, I mean, maybe the status quo with an unfair assumption for me, it might the default assumption for many people might just be kind of a notion of the sovereign right of a country, the same way they feel that they have the right to, you know. Decide who comes into their home or something. That's right. I just I didn't want to assume that everyone's just kind of unreflective status quo.
Right. Right. Sort of a lot of the way that I try to put this is that if you're the idea that you're that you're if you're you're saying that someone is not allowed to leave Haiti, that there's a there's a presumption they should. On the one hand, I know that this is not part of people's political worldview, but on the other hand, if you just sort of say, well, you know, forget about your Republican or Democrat or whatever, and you're just in a situation where someone is making a decision to let someone in or not, doesn't it seem like saying no for no reason is a very cruel thing to do to another person and and a strange like, why do you want to say no?
It seems like you want to say yes. And then you would be willing to entertain reasons just to not say yes. But still like, why wouldn't you be the default?
I, I feel like there are two things you did in the framing there that that are kind of sneaky from unintentionally I say, and one is telling people they're not allowed to leave Haiti. Like the way most people think about open borders is deciding who is allowed to come to our country. And of course, if you extrapolate that, you know, if every country has closed borders and that ends up resulting in someone being unable to leave their country, but it still it feels different than telling someone they can't leave their country.
And then the other framing choice was focusing on one person, like imagining one person at the border being told he can't come in when in practice, when you're talking about a policy, the question is, should we, you know, allow in however, many millions or tens of millions of people would start to feel different right now.
And I would say, well, the difference could be that because that the negative consequences get bigger and bigger the more people we let in. And that's where I say, all right, let's go and talk about the negative consequences.
OK, so let's talk about that. I'm I'm in San Francisco and a big topic here. A big kind of quality of life issue is the homeless problem. We have several thousand people who are chronically homeless. I think it's several thousand. And there, you know, encampments, homeless people living downtown, which is true in other cities, too, that have decent weather like L.A. But they're less kind of central, less centrally located than they are then.
I don't know. But L.A.. Oh, really?
I thought that Skid Row in L.A. was not maybe it's just that people don't walk everywhere in L.A. If you if you want to walk ten minutes from the music center in L.A., you will be in little Calcutta.
Got it. Maybe that's just people don't do that.
I don't I don't understand them. Like, oh, my God, that was your mistake with walking somewhere in L.A..
Yeah. So there's, you know, several thousand people. I think this girl has either the highest or second highest per capita homelessness rate in out of any city in the country. And you know that the mayor's trying to trying to build shelters or like temporary navigation centers. But of course, no neighborhood wants a big homeless shelter in their backyard. And it'd be great to give everyone housing. But at San Francisco, the housing is super expensive. So that's kind of not going to happen.
And, you know, that's like four thousand people. It's hard to imagine if we had forty thousand people living on the streets of San Francisco. And I think that's the kind of thing that people are picturing when they imagine just opening up our borders and letting anyone from around the world come to the US. Is that not a fair thing to imagine? And if it is, then how how would you answer it?
Yeah. Interesting question. So lately I've been reading a lot of books about the homeless. You know, the American homeless are so different from almost everyone in the U.S. or out that it's just not a reasonable comparison. Again, like the normal the normal problems in living that the homeless have are severe alcoholism, severe drug problems, just being a very, extremely difficult to get along with your city. You know, so it's very common for the homeless to have a lot of family members that have to help them out in the past.
But they have just burned all their bridges and then they're homeless after that point. Whereas, of course, you know, most people want to migrate, don't have anything like these problems. And so they're ready to hit the ground running. You know, quite striking that out of all of the illegal immigrants that you see, you see almost none of them begging. Right. So, I mean, I think illegal, like 30 years ago, Thomas was talking about how you almost never see a Mexican beggar in the Bay Area.
I haven't been there for a while, but I'm guessing you still don't see very many. But you do see them working really hard in the fields. So, yeah, I mean, in terms of, like, young people actually living on the streets, again, you know, this is primarily like a behavioral issue of, you know, I mean, even in the very short run, it's very, very unusual for for a person to be homeless just because of bad luck.
It's something where you need to have a combination of bad luck, but also have really bad behavior and also have exhausted almost all of your other options. And then you end up homeless. Yeah, that's not massive.
You know, so little to do with immigration is the I mean, I assume that.
People in other countries have roughly similar predispositions to bad behavior or alcoholism or whatever you're pointing out, that's causing American homeless people to be homeless.
Is the presumption that those people just wouldn't immigrate to the U.S. or or just that there's such a tiny fraction?
But, yeah, I think it's also very reasonable that they wouldn't migrate because a lot of their problem is not being willing to change their behavior in order to improve their lives.
So I think you're sort of assuming there will still be a strong filtering effect, even with open borders, just I mean, at least legally, at least for like like, you know, something like that. So you like the most obvious thing that we've seen in previous open borders periods is that young people are a lot more interested in moving so young adults much more willing to totally change their lives and try to learn a new language, take their kids with them.
But, you know, older people are a lot less interested in doing it. Of course, right now we have a lot of filters because it's so much easier to get in if you're high skilled than if you're low skilled. So I do I do actually want to get rid of that filter, but it's still a choice about whether you want to do it or not. And there's, you know, big differences between people that are willing to go and risk it all on a new life and those that would rather play it safe and stay where they are.
What about the broader impact on the welfare system? All right. So this is, first of all, you know, like it's one of the most common questions that I get because Milton Friedman, Milton Friedman famously gave an interview where he said you cannot have unrestricted immigration and a welfare state. And many people, especially free market oriented people, have quoted him ever since and saying, look, until we get rid of the welfare state, we can't even begin to talk about allowing and certainly low skilled immigration in any in greater numbers.
But I say it's a lot more complicated than it seems, because on the one hand, it's true that you've got a progressive tax system. So all else equal. The higher earning you are, the more skilled you are, the better a deal you are for U.S. taxpayers. But then there are a bunch of other complications in the numbers. In particular, there are a lot of government things, get a lot of government services that are what we call non rival.
So these are basically things the government does where the cost does not depend on population or doesn't depend very much on population. So, for example, like if the US had a big baby boom, would anyone say, all right, well, now we got 30 million new babies, we need to get 10 percent more nuclear weapons in order to take care of the babies. Right. And almost no one would say that and say the same thing about the national debt.
Whenever people talk about secession, they talk about how do we divide up the debt, because if you can succeed without having to take in any of the debt of your country of origin with you, you're doing great. So anyway, so basically these rival Goudge, these tip the financials in favor of people that are that are lower skilled and lower earning. And no good way of thinking about this is the movie theaters. Do they lose money by having cheap tickets at the matinee?
Right. Yes or no, because the seats are already there and you make some extra money, even though it's below average. And even though movie theater couldn't stay in business, if they charge the matinee prices all the time. Still, it is good business to go and letting people pay less than the average as long as they pay more than their cost to make sure I'm understanding you're saying.
Large amounts of low skilled immigrants would be a drain on the welfare system, but that would be compensated for by the taxes they pay going towards covering the non-viable, at least partly.
And then, of course, when you're thinking about the welfare system, it's also important to remember that the US, like every other country I've heard of, actually puts a lot more money into the elderly than the poor. And since immigrants tend to be young. What you say is, all right, so low skilled immigrants are going to be poor and that makes them more eligible for benefits. But on the other hand, they're also going to be young, which makes them less eligible for the other benefits.
And if you're saying, well, eventually they'll get them. The key insight of finance is that paying somebody something in 50 years is way cheaper than paying them now. Right. And it's not just a pyramid scheme. It's actually a way of turning unfavorable financials into good financials. And then I also just talk about, you know, education costs, which, of course, immigrants have kids, too. And that costs a lot of money. But they're still a really good deal here because adult immigrants will normally had their education paid for by their home country.
And so basically, if you just do the thought experiment family of two American natives and their child, how many people did American taxpayers pay for? It's all three, whereas two immigrant parents and a child that it's only one. So you get a lot of savings that way.
But how do we presumably the whether this ends up costing us or benefiting us overall depends on the mix of, you know, how poor versus middle class versus, I guess, wealthy the immigrant population is that ends up coming under open borders, right?
Well, you mean. Absolutely.
I mean, if everyone was desperately poor, we couldn't possibly expect that to be a net benefit for the country.
Right. Or net net fiscal benefits.
So how why are we confident that the ratios will be such that it will be a benefit? All right.
So, you know, as you might guess, there's a lot of empirical work on this, people trying to estimate it. And what I say is that it's not doing it right now. So the average we're getting seems to be a net fiscal positive once you take into account the issues I've been telling you about. But more importantly, when you go and break it down by subcategory in order and then try to project well under open borders, we get a lot more of lower skilled workers that we're currently getting.
Basically, the only categories that seem to be net fiscal negatives are older, low skilled people. So as long as you are young but low skilled, you're still a net fiscal positive and that's going actually the main demographic we should expect. So, again, of course, we're talking about something that is far out of sample. But it's not just that we can look at current numbers and say they're looking good, but we can actually subdivide them and say even if we were to go and change the composition a lot this well, it would still looks like it is a positive but long term or short term.
So the standard estimates are ultra long term. All right. Because, of course, if you let in an immigrant and he's going to have a kid in five years and you don't count that fact, it's going to make it look like he's much better than he really is. Right, because that kid is going to start being a big drain on taxpayers. So whenever people do this, then they always say, OK, well, we want to figure not just your facts.
We want to look at the facts of your kids. And so you'll have estimates that usually go out to seventy five years or even longer. And those are the National Academy of Science numbers that I'm talking about. So these are not the sort of numbers. Right. But again, of course, and whatever you're talking about, fiscal facts, you do want to be thinking and thinking long term. And again, what to be thinking about long term costs and benefits.
Sorry, were you saying that the fiscal effect of an immigrant looks is worse in the short term and better as you get longer run or the reverse is?
Actually, it very much depends on what's going on. So if it's someone who's going to who is going to have a kid in five years, then focusing on today, he looks better than he really is. On the other hand, if you're the kid is a dranias because the kid doesn't exist yet, but he is going to come along. Oh, very short term before the kid. OK, so basically you just look at it like a working adult right now with no kids.
He looks like he's great. But then wait a second. Get five years. You have a kid. We got to count that in when we're doing these long run estimates. But then you say, OK, wait a second, that kid is going to grow up and he's going to work. And also he's probably going to be much more financially successful than his parents because one of the main things that we see with immigration is the first generation doesn't do nearly as well as their kids in particular.
If you look at poor immigrants, they're much more likely to have successful kids than poor natives, because it seems like a lot of the reason why first generation immigrants are poor is because they just start off with so many disadvantages of not being fluent in the language or they just didn't get idea. They just didn't have the edge of the advantages that a native would have and of being able to arrange their career nicely and neatly. But then their kids wind up growing up in this country and they do as well as their parents would have or or maybe if their parents had not had these disadvantages because they don't have them.
So we're sort of getting at a recurring concern I had about this whole issue, which is so when I follow the discussion of. Immigration and wages or immigration and employment or crime or whatever effects of immigration, it seems, it has always seemed to me that there's so much debate and disagreement over over like a one narrow, you know, the Mariel boatlift, the, you know, 10000 Cubans who immigrated to Florida in the 1980s. Yeah, yeah. So there's it has seemed to me that there's a lot of disagreement among economists about what were the effects of that one in like instance of immigration.
And if there's so much disagreement about that, then how could we be remotely confident about the long run effects of a hypothetical open borders policy where we don't know, you know, who's going to come from where and just. Right, so I just say it's just not true that these issues are very controversial among people, work on them, rather, you know, you hear about the controversies, but that Mariel boatlift paper was of no great actual importance.
It's one of hundreds of papers estimating the effects of immigration on native wages. And it's a very typical paper. So I'd say there's a large literature reviews going over all the research. And like a very typical estimate would be something like if you let if immigration raises the population, obviously, of the workforce by 10 percent, then native wages fall by something between zero and one percent. So you're talking about something basically like inelasticity, somewhere between zero and point one.
So I think again and again for the fiscal effects of immigration, I didn't just cherry pick the one study that seemed like it would be supportive of me. Instead, I try to do a forward research and that I found. All right. So this National Academy of Sciences estimates, this is these are deliberately consensus estimates where they're getting a wide range of economists to go and say, what is it that we who have studied the facts can agree on?
So, yeah, I mean, this Mariel boatlift paper, as you know, like it's there was a recent wave of controversy about it. But I mean, I would say in the end, mostly it was just, you know, George Moorhouse, who sort of is the main voice of dissent in this area, which, you know, so I've met him and I know he's a very smart guy. And I debated him. I mean, I would just say to my mind, he's just someone who is very energetically searching for dark linings and silver clouds, which is what we really got.
So you think accepting him economists all roughly agree about the effects of immigration in that case and that it matches the consensus on the effects of immigration in the other cases that economists have looked at?
Yeah. So, of course, you can go and find Peter Navarro to, for example. Right. So or you can go so you can go and read, for example, you know, Paul Collier, he's another person who sort of passes for being skeptical of immigration. The economics profession, if you don't read his book, mostly comes down to what's all been great so far. But I'm worried that it would start to be bad at some later point.
Right. And again, compared to what a normal person says about immigration, that is an extremely favorable statement of all the complaints. I've been wrong up to now and then collieries as someone who says, yeah, but I'm thinking we're going to start to see these effects. And I'm more of someone saying, given that we haven't seen them, they're probably just not there, or at least they're just not very important to me, to the games.
You don't think that there's going to be a huge difference between the effects of the sort of low level controlled immigration that we've had so far and what we would see under open borders?
Well, what I say is that we do have a number of other cases that we can look at to see what happens. So, of course, there was an open borders era in human history, which is not that long ago, so basically ended about a century ago. But it's not that this world is unrecognizable for today. Right. And also, there have been countries that have allowed very large waves of immigration in a short time. So Israel after the opening up of the Soviet Union or collapse of the Soviet Union.
Right. And it just it doesn't seem like these cases where you have much higher levels really do see the problems that people are so worried about. So again and again, especially the main thing in my mind is always to put things in perspective. So, you know, like one thing I always like to say is approximately speaking, what is one trillion, minus one billion? Right. One trillion. Yes, one trillion. Yes, and yet people often go and say, OK, yes, there to these gains which are in the trillions, and then I've got a bunch of problems that are in the millions or billions.
And then who's to say? And I say, well, let's go and actually go and add them up and to see are the things that you're worried about, even in the same ballpark as the games we're talking about. And that's a lot of the way I do structure the case in the book.
I feel pretty confident that the gains to poor people in other countries who aren't currently allowed to immigrate to the U.S. or other wealthy countries, that those would be significant and positive. The part that seems much more up in the air to me is the impact on the, you know, pre-existing populations in the US and Europe, which like if you're just going to be a pure utilitarian about it, then it seems like, yeah, you know, it's a trillion minus a billion or maybe three trillion minus 10 billion, whatever.
It's still basically a trillion. But if you're if you wanted to make a confident case that the impact on the pre-existing populations in the US and Europe will be positive or at least not negative, that seems harder to do based on the data we have from the past. Right.
Well, here's what I'd say. So we've got a lot of other examples of very large increases in production. And I will say there are zero examples that I know of, a lovely large increase in production that was not broadly beneficial to society overall. So, you know, like the Industrial Revolution, this is not primarily a benefit to people who make factories or work in factories. There's a large increase in production and the extra stuff that gets made gets sold to the world and living standards in general rise or vaccine vaccines, not primarily a benefit to the manufacturers of vaccines.
Instead, most of the gains go to mankind that gets to live longer or again on the Internet. So I'd say that it is true that if there's a small change, then it might be that that the gains primarily go to one narrow group of actors and the other people don't gain or even lose. That does sometimes happen. But on the other hand, any time that we've seen any kind of large increase in the production of mankind, we just can't find cases where the games all go to the group that's directly involved and do not wind up getting spread widely.
Let's let's talk about the cultural impact of immigration, because I think that's probably a common objection that you hear. In addition to the impact on wages, are employment your.
Well, before I comment, why don't you just give your case for why you're not worried about the cultural impact?
Right. So what I'd say is your culture is a fairly vague term. So you want to go and say, you know, exactly what are you talking about? And the more the more specific you get, the easier it is to see the complaints don't really make much sense. And then, of course, if the complaint never gets specific, then it's hard to really answer it. But you're sort of starting with things like language acquisition. There is this perception that immigrants aren't learning English.
And we've got data on this saying that the pattern is very similar to what it was in the past. Namely, the first generation doesn't get fluent generally, especially if they come later in life. But their kids have almost total fluency. And in the data, that seems to be true for the Ellis Island generation and truth for today as well. Then I talk about there's this whole social science literature of trust. And, you know, there's this concern.
Well, in rich countries, people have high trust. In poor countries, they have low trust. Maybe this is causing the problems or maybe it's trustworthiness rather than actual trust. So now this in itself wouldn't be a problem if there were assimilation. So that's the main issue that I that I focus on is true, that in poor countries you do have low measured levels of trust. But what I say is also, if you look at the second generation especially, then you see they wind up being very similar and trust the people in the country where they gone.
Then let's see some of the other things that you could talk about, either sort of an idea of theirs in your cultural DNA. There's your success or failure or freedom or authoritarianism. So there's this literature that people sometimes call the deep roots, literature or ancestry. And sort of the idea of this is that the countries that are rich today are inhabited by the descendants of people that were relatively successful centuries ago. Right. And and then in the book, I go go over the evidence and and the research.
So, I mean, the a couple of things going on. I mean, one is just that there are three huge outliers in this research, namely China, India, the US, because China and India are still poor and the U.S. is rich. And and these models say really it should be quite different. Right. And you could just say it's three outliers. But I say when the three outliers, the three biggest countries in the world, you should be worried.
So, you know, talk about how the results are very sensitive to whether or not you treat those countries as informative as Grenada or. Whether you treat them as weighted on their population and then also say, you know, this research wind up saying that just geography is very important to. And so when you go and just look at the original papers and say, what do they say would happen under open borders, they wind up again giving you very optimistic results of letting people move to a more favorable geographical areas.
So and then so that's was there some more specific cultural?
Yeah, I as you talked, I realized how many different things could be meant by the cultural issue. I guess I want to focus on two. One is the like the you were starting to touch on it. The things that have made America great and successful seem like surely there's geography. You know, we had this kind of isolated, safe location in the world with lots of natural resources and that certainly helped. But there's got to be cultural factors as well that have made America great.
And probably some of those probably a lot of those factors are captured in the kind of hard to call them hard institutions like the laws in the US and those presumably won't change. Let's just assume those don't change if we have open borders. But then there's probably also a large component of the culture that's just you know, it's just like Meems just shared culture. And that, I think, is one thing people worry will change if you have huge swath of people from other countries without this pre-existing culture of, you know, innovation or free speech or or, you know, love of democracy or whatever it is you think is making America great.
So that's a concern. And then the other cultural issue I was thinking of is just, you know, Americans in small towns being like, hey, if we you know, we're like ten thousand people, if we let in another ten thousand people from another country, then our town is just completely different from what we've always known. And that's, you know, we setting aside economic issues, that's that's a, you know, huge negative change to our happiness, our quality of life.
Right. So it's, of course, a lot of different things to talk about. But, yeah, just just to back up. So, I mean, when you realize that the US had open borders or something very close to it for hundreds of years, and all these complaints seem like they would have made a similar amount of sense back then and then say, well, how did the US do it? And the answer is you took people from a lot of very backwards and authoritarian countries and the first generation kind of got some of it and then their kids got assimilated.
Well, with the scale of it, was it like 10 percent of of total population?
You know, it peaked at higher, actually. So I think it peaked at more like 16 percent for the US. I believe so. And again, of course, in the end, I think it was also actually more concentrated in those days, so much higher shares and like, you know, in New York and other other port areas, things like that. So it was totally possible in the past. And in fact, it happened that the U.S. just absorbed enormous numbers of people that seem very culturally distant.
And it didn't seem that hard back then. Now, people said, yeah, well, that was then. This is now. And, you know, especially could say, well, now we've got, you know, transportation and communication make it easier to stay in touch with the home country and so assimilate less and say that's true. But that's only half the story. Say a lot of the story is that now, thanks to modern communication and transportation, much of the world is what I call pre assimilated.
They're already, in their minds, a part of the culture of the United States of the West, even if they don't live in those places. So, you know, like I say, like in nineteen hundred, you're Sicilian peasant who comes to the U.S. you know, he's probably never heard English, never seen electricity. And then he shows in New York and it's a totally new world for him, whereas now there are well over a billion people who are fluent English speakers and most of them do not leave or not actually in English, English speaking countries.
But they've just learned it. They know this culture through Internet TV. So maybe they're really ready to hit the ground running in a way that was very rare in earlier periods. So, I mean, I like I think on balance, actually, we are it is easier to go and assimilate people today because the world is so much just so much more culturally unified. I mean, in terms of terms of like the town where they have ten thousand people in ten thousand more people show up.
You know, that is a thought experiment where I can totally understand being concerned. But what if it's not ten thousand people showing up right away, but rather a thousand people arriving a year for ten years? And in that case, you know, you like it spread out, there's a lot more time to adjust. And you know where you're worth remembering that you in a town of ten thousand people, there are some nice cultural things. There's also a lot of you're missing and a lot of what those immigrants bring is your food and new ideas and and so on.
So I personally am very sympathetic to that. But I'm kind of trying to imagine, you know, the mindset of someone who didn't leave their small. For the big city, because they prefer the life in a small town, you know, even though it's lacking good Thai restaurants or whatever to what they would have in a large city. And yeah, I mean, I recently read a blog post of yours. I think the title is You're not you don't have a right to your culture or something like that.
You have no right. You know. Yeah. And your point was basically that people, you know, culture is what other people do. It's how other people behave. You don't know individual really has a right to try to control that. And you know that that that I feel sympathetic to that. But I feel like there is kind of an implied contract that that people have with their community or their city or their country where they're they're kind of willing to make sacrifices for their community or city or country.
They're willing to, like, invest in the future, but only kind of on the implicit assumption that it's not going to be completely different in 20 years, like, you know, to to take my thought experiment and make it even more extreme. If you had this town that people had lived in for generations and they knew that, you know, in 20 years it was going to be completely Chinese immigrants or something, and they were basically going to import their culture from wherever they were from.
And China would the people who had lived there before want like would they still be as enthusiastic about investing in the future of the town? Or would they just feel like, no, it's just a different town now, like just happens to be on the same location as our town was?
Of course, they probably want to be buying land to get ready for all those new customers, even if they themselves don't live there. I mean, that's the very economic.
Yeah. Oh, I see.
You're suggesting that even for people who put a much higher value than you do on this kind of continued culture and less value on, you know, good Thai restaurants, even for them, the economic benefits would be large enough that it would probably still be worth it.
I mean, not for every person, of course, but yeah, overall. I mean, you know, even more than most economists, I'm very fond of the slogan that actions speak louder than words, just the fact that people hardly ever make an effort to move out of an area with immigrants, even though there's plenty of affordable areas with very low levels of immigrants, says to me that their complaints just aren't really that serious. And again, this is in contrast when there's like crime in your area goes up, people do move for that.
But when when it's when it's you know, so I mean, actually, like, since I live in D.C., I've got a chance to go and talk to a bunch of people who are against immigration, who are against immigration for a living. And I have had to say, right. Well, like, why are you here when you could be living in Idaho right here, you could be living in some place where there's hardly any immigrants. And I'm always kind of expecting them to say, ah, the answer is I'm taking one for the team here.
It's terrible to be here with all these immigrants, but I'm suffering so that the rest of America won't have to. But they never actually said that. Instead, they just sort of dodge the question and say, well, it's complicated. And I yeah, I guess it is complicated.
But then why are you complaining of so complicated their official position that they personally don't like immigration? Or I would have assumed that, you know, anyone living in D.C., working at a think tank or whatever probably enjoys life in a big city with immigrants, but thinks that it's bad for the country as a whole, long term or something.
They haven't said that either. Well, I don't generally know how long I've debated Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies. Many times he's in this area, of course. And you, like the most of you said, is, well, I mean, the immigrants just go to where the jobs are. So that doesn't really show anything. And I say, you know, I think it actually shows quite a bit break there, because one thing immigrants do is go to where the jobs are.
But another thing they do is just go to where other immigrants from the country are. So there is a pattern of immigrants just going to border areas because that where people basically stick, where they hit. And yet it doesn't seem like the natives want to leave those areas either. So it's not that they the immigrants were there because it was such a great area, except for the fact there's other people in their country. So, I mean, it's true.
They'll say, OK, well, I'm just worried about the effects on the country, but a lot of their complaints you would think you would be able to see on a more local level like this, especially, again, the especially the cultural one, if you think it is just really bad to be losing your culture, well, you know, you can go to Idaho and then you can keep living in the way people did in the 1950s. But it doesn't seem like many people actually care enough to do it.
And to me, that really does say something. Just says, like, you don't really mind that much. You're like complaining.
How do you feel about the empirical evidence from Europe? Like, I I'm not following this closely, but it does seem to me that there's a lot of tension in places like Sweden, you know, with large waves of immigrants that that aren't assimilating as fast as people would like.
Right. So what I say is, you know, like, you know, there's probably more research being done on the U.S. than Estonia that has been done for Europe and the U.S. result is that immigration to Europe isn't as good as in the U.S., but it's still not that. Right. So, you know, so they got they definitely have. Lower rates of labor force participation in most European countries, which I would say is a sign European countries really need to rethink their labor laws and their welfare policies, rather than saying, you know, there's a problem with the immigrants themselves right now and then like on fiscal effects.
So that's actually less clear because Europe has so many value added taxes, which are paid by even even people that are completely out of the normal legal illegal labor force. So they do have more redistribution, but a lot of it's not it's not targeted. So that, again, that makes it less clear that, you know, that immigrants are a burden in terms of crime than than probably that. I think it's actually pretty clear that, you know, that immigrants or the foreign born of higher crime rates in Europe than they do then, whereas in the U.S. it's the other way around.
I'm wondering what the world's going on, I think is actually a pretty simple story, which is that native born Americans have high crime rates and native born Europeans have low crime rates and immigrants are in the middle. So there's no simple way to resolve this. So immigrants are better than us, but they're worse than Europeans. But again, you have to put this in the context of Europe. You know, like in Europe, their crime rates are so low, especially for serious crime, you could be five times as bad as as Europeans and still be find something I still don't understand is why there's opposition to high skilled immigrants.
We've been talking mostly about low skilled immigrants because they it seems sort of more ambiguous what the overall effects would be. Are there more more downsides to point to? But who what is the constituency opposing high skilled immigrants in the US?
Right. So, you know, like I said, I have gotten a chance to debate. People are concerned about this and we asked for what they say. So, I mean, of course, you know, like I said, well, of course, you know, some of these concerns are not as serious. But so, you know, for example, I've heard the argument of even among native born engineers, most of them don't work in engineering.
So the idea that we could that we need more engineers actually turns out to be wrong. All right. I know, but why do we even need to talk about what we need?
Why don't we just let them come? What's the dangling idea? The idea is what you let in foreign born engineers and then they'll employ native born engineers. And that's terrible. Since I have a whole book on education, I have to say, look, you're like you don't get it. What's really going on is that most people with STEM degrees get high paid jobs outside of STEM. Right. That's the real story. And so when you letting more immigrants, it's not that you can't be an engineer when you're native born, it's just that and the people want to hire engineers for a wide range of jobs, even many that have nothing to do with engineering because they just want someone to take, want and can hack, can hack it.
But yeah, so there's that. But, you know, there like there are these disemployment effects. I have heard people worrying about them.
So I guess I just assumed that highly educated, high skilled Americans tend to be pretty pro immigration and they're not worried about losing their job. I never hear, you know, people with kids worried about losing their jobs to immigrants.
Right. And that thing, I'm just really. And that's why. Well, I say as I say in the book, you know, if there weren't for all these immigrant econ professors, I probably at Harvard. Right.
Like you and you like your cosmopolitanism. That's what I'm saying. Like, I never write why.
So surely that is not the reason why the U.S. limits high skill immigration.
So so we get a lot of what's going on is not that the high skilled are advancing their own interests, but rather other people are upset on their behalf, which goes, you know, there are lots of problems where the people affected barely complain. But there's some other group that says, look at how terrible this is, we've got to go and help these folks. So, I mean, that's that's that's pretty common. You know, then nannygate like these cultural concerns.
And actually, I mean, like, if you think about the connection between with the Harvard admissions discrimination case against Asians, there is sort of an idea of we don't want the American elite to become 80 percent Asian. And as long as we keep letting Asians in, that seems like it's going to happen. So we don't want that. I think that's in the background as well. I mean, I think that's I think if Harvard were honest, they would say something like, well, Harvard brings the new elite and we think that the elite should remain at least half white.
Yeah. Instead, they just say that Asians have a worse personality and personalities offer notice. Yeah, I love it was shocking to you that that was there. That was there, like fig leaf that Asian.
They think Asians personalities are worse than personalities. But this is really great and all the needs of the really great personalities off the charts. Personality, baby.
Brian, before I let you go, you've been on the show before twice, actually. So I'm not going to ask you the standard question about a book that's influenced you. But what would you recommend people read to get a different perspective on the open borders question?
Yeah, I'd say my colleague Eric Jones has a book called Hive Mind, and I spent about 10 pages in my book arguing with an alien who was advancing his arguments. So, you know, Garrett is very concerned about the effect of immigration on national IQ. And I think a lot of people would get very touchy about the complaint. But I said, all right, let's just go and look at the evidence and see what it really means and the extent to which the concern holds water.
But also, you've got to read the book. You'll get something that's very different for what almost anyone else is going to tell you. So I thought, you know, he did a really good job of that. Of course, I also think I did a really good job of answering it and also synthesizing the good parts of the book while putting a proper cap on the complex. Great.
I got John's hive mind. We'll link to that as well as to open Borders The Science and Ethics of Immigration by Brian and Zequinha Smith. I was really a pleasure to read. I highly recommend recommend it to my listeners. So, Brian, thank you so much for coming back on. Rationally speaking, it's always a pleasure to have you.
Always fantastic to talk to you, Julia. Thanks a lot.
This concludes another episode of rationally speaking. Join us next time for more explanations on the borderland between reason and nothing.