In defense of Open Borders: Interview with Bryan Caplan

Christine Roy @agent_illustrateur

-Defenders of open borders typically claim that such a policy would cause a big increase in global productivity - perhaps even double it. Why is that? Doesn’t it sound too good to be true?

Normally it would sound too good to be true, but in this case we’ve got two factors that make it possible. First we have very large differences in wages for the same kind of labor per country. So for most commodities, if a good costs twice as much in one country than another, that would be a very large difference, but for labor it’s common to have a tenth of that difference. That means that there are these very large prices wages, which in international trade theory means large opportunities for gains. And if you combine this large gain per unit per person, with a very large number of people that want to move, it multiplies to a very large amount. So, basically, due to labor swaisting billions of people in the backwaters of global economy, if you could move those to high productivity countries there would be a very large increase in the production of mankind.

- You have argued that economists are typically more aware than the average US citizen of the economic benefits of immigration. Is the project of a graphic novel an attempt to make the public at large to think like economists?

Yeah, of course. That’s one of the things I am trying to do. In this book I am talking about immigration, but I am also teaching economics 101: understanding how trade barriers work and cause poverty by preventing people from moving resources from where they are scarce to where they are abundant, and understanding what is the one principle of economics: the secret of mass consumption, is mass production.

In the book I use this topic -immigration- to teach economics, which shows how relevant economics is in the real world, not only something for a final exam that doesn’t explain the world.

- You argue that in assessing the potential benefits and costs of immigration, we are prone to commit the “arithmetic fallacy”. What is it? Why is it important?

The arithmetic fallacy says that if we let low-skill workers inside our country, the average income would decrease, which is true. And then tries to say that that is a bad thing, which is untrue. Because the key economic point is just “does that hurt the people already there? No, they improve. Does it make the immigrants better off? Yes”. So, if both groups are better off, the fact that the average is going down is not a bad thing.

You can see this in high immigration countries like the Gulf monarchies that let a lot of low-skill workers that reduce the average, but what is happening is that those low-skill workers are enriching the people that are already there and improving their own lives. So, immigration is not only nothing to worry about, but a good thing.

It makes sense to look at the average when the population is constant, but it doesn’t when you change the demographic.

-Many argue that, in the same way that we are entitled to forbid entry into our homes to strangers, nations should be able to do the same with foreigners. Alternatively, it is claimed that if we had a duty to open our borders, we would also have a duty to let them inside our house. You don’t find this analogy compelling. Why?

Not only are the ideas that I can keep you out, that I can control my property and that we have the right to control our country… not only they don’t imply each other, but they are incompatible. Because if you have the right to control your property, then it’s up to you to decide who enters your property; but if the country decides, then the country decides who can and can’t enter in your property. So, actually, those two ideas are deeply incompatible, because the idea that countries can control their land is basically socialism. It is saying that the country is the collective property of their citizens. Whereas the idea that I control my home is the opposite, is the idea that it doesn’t matter what my fellow citizens think.

This is an idea that libertarians often bring up but almost only in the context of immigration, because if they actually followed it logically they would realize that if you think countries have the right to control what people do -what happens inside the country- then you really shouldn't be a libertarian. You could say “somebody doesn’t have a right to open a newspaper inside my house without my consent, so you should also need permission of the people of the country to open a newspaper” and so on. So, the previous argument is really one of the worst non sequitur I’ve ever heard in political thought.

-Many political philosophers argue that, in order for political communities to be truly self-determining, their members must be able to restrict who can get in. Do you think this is a convincing view?

If you think that the most important thing is for communities to collectively decide what happens, then of course that is a problem for open borders, but also for any limitations on government power. But you could as easily say that for a community it’s very important for everyone to practice the same religion or have the same ideas etc. - if you think that you are endorsing a very authoritarian government or the right to have it. So I would say -simply- that community is not that important, individual freedom is. In fact, you can have a more than acceptable community while respecting individual rights. But of course, if you want everyone in the community to act as you want, then individual rights are a problem in getting to control people.

-To many, America (or Spain, or whatever country) should go first, meaning that Nations have the right or the duty to specially care for its own people, like individuals should specially care for their close ones (family and friends). In addition, it’s also commonly thought that free immigration would hurt nationals of rich countries. The conclusion is then that Nations should open their borders with great care, only when it favors nationals. What’s your take on the first premise?

On the idea that countries should be like families: even if that were so, one of the main things that we know about the morality of families is that it’s not ok to do anything that favors yours but hurt non-family members. For example, if there is a father judging a school race, he can’t favor his child. So even if you accept the analogy between countries and families, a big part of the ethics of the family is remembering that even though you want to treat your family members especially, nevertheless there are very strict moral restrictions on how far you can take that. Even very simple things like saying that your son won the race when the other kid did is wrong, so saying that only the members of your family should be able to live and work in your area seems going too far. In favoring nations everyone should be mindful of the rights of people living in other countries. The problem is not that people forget to favor their own, but when in doing so they go too far and violate third parties’ rights.

But again, if you think of countries like families that is a prescription for a totalitarian society, where everyone regards everyone else as being so close to them that they wouldn’t be able to tolerate any individual choice or doing things they don’t approve of: just think about the things our parents would stop us from doing.

-If there is not that much ground for preferring the well-being of nationals over the well-being of immigrants, then it seems that, apart from open borders, many big political changes are necessary. For example, spending tax revenues in a first-world country would be unjustified insofar as that money could be extremely more productive in third-world countries.

There is a difference between using your own resources to help your own kids versus going and violating the rights of other people's kids. So, it can make sense to go and favor your fellow citizens with government spending, but it doesn’t make sense to prevent people from other countries to rent a place to live and work in the country.

Now, if you take my deeper point more seriously and accept that countries should not be ruled like families, and you accept that you have an obligation to help strangers, then it makes sense to help the most those that are in greater need and not those that happen to be born in the same country.

-And on the second premise? Does immigration hurt nationals by means of 1) higher labor competition, 2) less state benefits for all, 3) more crime etc.?

Higher labor competition

Going back to my previous point -the secret of mass consumption is mass production- if the global GDP doubles -if those numbers were true or close to truth- then both nationals and migrants would benefit from it. We have good evidence that the benefits of big increases of this sort don’t get concentrated on just one group of people, but everyone. For example, the Industrial Revolution not only helped factory owners, the Internet not only helped computer programmers… instead when you have a large increase in production then virtually everyone gains. This is the starting point.

In terms of labor competition, if immigrants have the same skills than nationals, then it can harm them, this makes sense. If you let a lot of economics professors into the USA this is bad for me. However, all the people who work in occupations that are different from mine - they are all helping me. When someone who makes Afghan food shows up in the USA, this isn’t labor competition for me, it is rather more competition for my salary. So, for every person you have to focus on comparing between what is the effect of direct competition with them and what is the effect on terms of the supply of products that they buy. The main thing to remember is that since immigration leads to a large increase of the total production, normally the gain to you as a consumer -your real salary- is greater than the loss to you as a producer. And that of course varies from person to person, and when you have a very large and broad increase in production it’s very hard to find losers; just like it’s very hard to find losers from the Industrial Revolution or the internet although occasionally you can find someone. The idea is that immigration is not just “moving people” but better division of labor, which normally helps everyone, not only immigrants.

State Benefits

The main thing to ask in terms of what’s going on is: Are immigrants going to be net taxpayers or net tax assumers? For that you have to think about all the taxes they are going to pay and then subtract all the services they are going to use. For the US the numbers normally come out as positive for immigrants. And even for low-skilled immigrants, as long as they are young, they come out positive because they are not going to collect old age benefits for many years. For Europe the numbers are probably a bit worse than in the US, although you do have much higher value and national sales taxes which are paid by everybody and are proportional, so that tends to make immigrants look better.

So in terms of the fiscal burden of immigrants it is very complicated, and people usually answer these questions using a philosophy, rather than by looking at numbers. In the book I try to look at numbers and not just use a philosophy. In any case, it wouldn’t surprise me if immigrants were a small fiscal burden in Europe, unlike in the US. There, I would say this is totally caused by your own laws, because your laws could say that immigrants get lower benefits than natives. Then I would just say that whatever energy you’re putting into trying to stop immigration, you can redirect that energy into saying: we are happy to receive immigrants, but it’s not fair that they be a burden on society. We thus direct that energy and that anger towards limiting benefits for immigrants, and that would then turn the fiscal balance positive.

By the way, for a country like Spain, where the birth rates are very low, those are the countries were you desperately need immigrants. With the US’s higher birth rates, it’s not such a big deal for us. You’re going to have a real disaster in your hands if you don’t start making more babies or at least keep letting as many immigrants as they are letting in.


In my book, I only talk about US data, and there it is clear than immigrants have lower crime rates than natives. For Europe, my understanding is that is not true, and foreigners have greater crime rates than natives. My best guess of what is going on is that Americans have very high crime, Europeans have very low crime, and immigrants are in the middle. So they are better than us but worse than you. I would also say that Europe has such low serious crime rates that someone could have twice your crime rates and still be okay.

-On a similar vein, won’t open borders destroy or heavily endanger national cultures?

Cultural complaints are vague, and so it’s often hard to know exactly whether they are true or not, or what data would be relevant. For things like language acquisition, the data is quite good, and we can definitely see for the US there is no problem with second-generation immigrants learning English. First-generation immigrants, if they don’t already speak English, don’t normally become totally fluent, but they still know enough to get by, and their kids become totally fluent. I was recently in Spain, and you don’t have a problem there. Most immigrants come from Spanish-speaking countries. Your biggest sending county is Romania, but they leave Spain within a matter of months. In terms of language, the main thing is that there’s so many people around the world that already speak languages of places they don’t live in, so there are large numbers of people who have become pre-assimilated. They are prepared to be part of the First World. And also in terms of cultural knowledge, they already know a lot from the Internet, television movies, and similar things.

In my book, I then go into other measures of culture, and the main thing I say is that there are high rates of assimilation, so that the main thing that happens when immigrants come to a new country is that the first-generation assimilates partly, and the kids assimilate almost entirely. Of course, whenever you see that immigrants are not totally assimilating, people will often take it as a sign that they aren’t doing it at all. That’s why I always say you should go and compare second-generation immigrants to people back in their home country, rather than to the average person in the receiving country, and then you get an idea of how much assimilation has really happened. There have been estimates about how many children of Muslim immigrants abandoned Islam, and I think it’s actually quite high, but you don’t have TV shows on that. You have shown about a small number of kids who joined ISIS. An immigrant joining ISIS is a story, a million immigrants abandoning Islam is not much of a story.

-What is the IQ argument against open borders, defended, for instance, by your colleague Garrett Jones? Why do you think it is unsound?

The argument basically says: just like individual IQ is very important for individual success, average national success is important for national success. He makes a good case for this. Intuitively, it makes sense that smart people make countries better, and the data seems to be pretty consistent with that. In the book I say two things about this. One, if you use Jones’s own numbers, it still implies that open borders would double the GDP of the world. Because you are moving people from countries with low productivity to countries with high productivity, it implies an enormous gain to the production of humankind. So, even though people often look at this work and say: “it is proving this other work wrong”, it is actually totally compatible. Two, in Garret’s book Hive Mind he does talk about reverse causality, where maybe what’s going is that poverty is lowering IQ, rather than low IQ causing poverty. He talks about this as a possibility, but he doesn’t really have much in the way of quantitative estimates. What I have done in some blog posts (and I talk about this in the book) is to get data about international adoptees in Scandinavia, and then you look at what their IQ scores were and what their educational success was when they were of the same age, and compare those numbers with the average person in their home country. This is a very conservative estimate for how much getting adopted from, say Ethiopia, and raised in Sweden gives you, because these are kids in Third World orphanages, who would have probably been below average in their own home countries.

Anyway, what I say is that when you do this you get a conservative estimate that moving kids at birth from the Third World to the First reduces the IQ gap, which is usually large, by about 40%. It is not 100%, so maybe some of that gap really is very intractable, or genetic, or whatever. But the main thing is that this is, as far as I can tell, the most effective way of increasing human intelligence that has ever been discovered. It is much more effective than just taking a low IQ kid from a rich country and letting him be raised by a high IQ family in that same country. Probably because the difference between being in a poor family in the First World and being an average person in the Third World is dramatically different and dramatically better, in terms not only of nutrition and sanitation, but also many other variables.

-Wouldn’t open borders hurt the countries of origin of the immigrants?

No, overall, open borders would be good both for those leaving and those remaining. Obviously for the money they would send, but also because when people leave a country this creates business connections which allows the improvement of the home country. We can see this in cases like Puerto Rico: legally it has open borders with the US since 1902,; it was a poor Caribbean island, now overall half the people of Puerto Rico descent leave in mainland US, but still Puerto Rico is basically the richest part of the Caribbean. So, it seems like the open borders with the US has actually been really good, because it gives you investments, tourism, business connections. Additionally it has been observed that facilities in migration have pushed evil governments -governments that see their citizens as mere resources- to improve their behavior in order to stop their people from leaving (unless you decide to turn the country into a giant prison-state, like North Korea).

-Any concluding thoughts?

When I was in Spain giving a talk what I said is that Spain has more to gain from open borders than almost every other country: you have almost one billion people on Earth that speak Spanish and are culturally similar, so they are ready to become productive members of society as soon as they can get in.

Being in Spain you realize what an empty country that is, how few people it has, how much room there is to build massive new cities, how many opportunities there are for new businesses… if only you can get the people! Additionally, Spain also has a big problem concerning demography, incorporating new young workers would be great for it.

My slogan would be “give me 20 years of open borders in Spain, and I would give you the largest economy in Europe”.



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