24 Apr 2014

Bryan Caplan on Immigration

Bryan Caplan, Immigration 17 Comments

Caplan recently had a debate over immigration. He has posted his opening statement which is really good. Here are two excerpts:

Let’s start with our [immigration] laws’ injustice. Imagine the U.S. made it illegal for blacks, women, or Jews to take certain jobs or live in certain neighborhoods. You wouldn’t merely object. You’d be appalled. Whatever your specific moral views, you know it’s wrong to prohibit a black, woman, or Jew from accepting a job or renting a home.

My question: How is mandatory discrimination against foreigners against less wrong than mandatory discrimination against blacks, women, or Jews? The leading rationale is that “we should take care of our own first.” That might be a good argument against sending foreigners welfare checks. But it’s an Orwellian argument for stopping immigrants from working or renting here. Minding your own business when two strangers trade with each other is not a form of charity.

This is not a weird libertarian point. The fact that I never put Krazy Glue in the locks of the Center for Immigration Studies does not make me one of its donors.

Make sure you get what he’s saying in the above: When the federal government intervenes in the name of immigration control, it is (often) grabbing a foreign-born person who was going to have a voluntary, win-win relationship with a domestic-born person and blocking that deal. Thus, that would be like the government putting crazy glue in the locks of a building (that it didn’t own). Now, if for some reason the government decides to NOT do either activity, this shouldn’t be construed as a form of charity.

In other words, Caplan is objecting to the typical framing of the debate, where the US government is doing immigrants a favor by letting them in. No, Caplan is saying the US government is actively hurting potential immigrants by keeping them out.

Back to Caplan:

Friends of immigration restrictions often compare nations to families. I’ll accept their analogy. I love my children more than I love the rest of you put together. This is a good reason to worry that I’ll treat you unjustly if there’s ever a conflict of interest. But it’s no excuse for me to treat you unjustly. “I want my beloved son to get this job” does not justify slashing rival candidates’ tires the morning of the final interview. The same goes for immigration policy. Your love for Americans may tempt you to treat foreigners unjustly, but it’s no excuse for treating them unjustly.

17 Responses to “Bryan Caplan on Immigration”

  1. Matt M (Dude Where's My Freedom) says:

    “That might be a good argument against sending foreigners welfare checks.”

    I think this is what it really boils down to for many. But it’s not as specific as transfer payments, it’s utilization of “public services” in general (schools, police, emergency rooms, etc.) Basically, we put the government in charge of a huge chunk of the economy, and people seem to think (not unreasonably) that only people who actually pay taxes should be able to utilize, and illegal immigrants tend not to (putting aside the fact that plenty of poor American citizens don’t really pay taxes).

    If libertarians started advocating “open borders but no welfare or access to public services of any kind for non-citizens” it might get more neo-con support than Caplan imagines…

    • RPLong says:

      I do not see why the welfare-should-only-benefit-those-who-pay-for-it argument resonates with anyone whomsoever. Welfare is specifically designed to benefit those who cannot pay for it. That’s the whole point.

      Conservatives might object that they shouldn’t have to support “a million more welfare recipients,” but so long as their taxes don’t increase, then what does it matter? If I’m taxed $5,000 to pay for one welfare recipient or taxed $5,000 to pay for one million welfare recipients, what do I care? I’m still out the same $5,000.

      I don’t like believing that opponents of immigration simply resent outsiders, but when I look at some of the arguments against immigration, it’s really tough for me to conclude otherwise.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      If libertarians started advocating “open borders but no welfare or access to public services of any kind for non-citizens”

      I’m pretty sure Caplan advocates “open borders but no welfare or access to public services of any kind for non-citizens or citizens.”

      • Matt M (Dude Where's My Freedom) says:


        True, but with welfare programs the THEORY (granted, this virtually never plays out in real life) is that you’re on welfare temporarily when you’re undergoing hard times, and the welfare helps you get “back on your feet” so that you can once again become a productive, tax-paying citizen who has “paid in” to the system. A lot of people view it as a form of insurance. Social security, for instance, is specifically advertised as such. Illegals will simply never pay in at all. They will claim benefits when needed, and if they somehow manage to rise out of poverty, won’t then return to a taxpaying status. That also ignores the other ways in which being a citizen makes you potentially useful to the state: jury duty, potential military conscription, etc. The general idea is that citizens, even the very poor, have a certain “skin in the game” that illegals do not.


        Fair point. That’s essentially what I would advocate too. Maybe we all just need to be louder about it, and to regularly insist that the two things be coupled together. My prediction is that the left would gladly tell us “Sure, grant citizenship to every illegal, and then we’ll get around to welfare reform and kicking them out of public schools and all that. Just pass this amnesty bill and we totally promise we’ll do that next,” and we all know how that ends…

        • RPLong says:

          I guess what I’m saying is that I understand how people can perform the mental gymnastics necessary to make a welfare-oriented case against immigration, but they are not ultimately very compelling arguments, for reasons described above.

  2. Major_Freedom says:

    It is clear that almost all welfare advocates are not basing their advocacy on helping the poor. At root it is about wanting the government to direct cash and wealth transfers and exchanges.

    For who among the welfare advocates in the US for example advocate for taxes being raised on every American, including the lowest income earning Americans, so enough money and wealth ensures that there are no poor foreigners (obviously in the short run)?

    Oh no no no, that would be intolerable. “We” can’t sacrifice ourselves. Let the world’s poor suffer and die on their own. But the rich in this country, they should become poorer to make poor Americans, who are wealthier than the middle class in most every developing country, wealthier.

    THAT would be justified.

    And oh before any socialist here cries fowl on this because I am ignoring the “crucial” distinction that the lowest income Americans pay taxes, and so they deseve first crack at the loot, well, that actually would be conceding the whole point. Lowest income Americans should be given loot from wealthy Americans more than “what the poor Americans put in”.

    It is almoat like the welfare advocates are thinking of some twisted conception of rights to earn a return on their investment. They put in a small fee of taxes, and that entitles tgem to a positive return from the government.

    Actually, that is not even accurate, because 40% of the US population pay NO taxes. That includes people being net welfare recipients even after paying sales taxes.

    Over 40 million people on food stamps.

    But yeah, Krugman is right. It is the 1% who we should worry about when it comes to standards of living.

    • Major_Freedom says:

      Nationalist welfarists are egoists.

    • Anonyblogger says:

      A man enters a structure housing an industrial chicken raising operation.

      “It smells fowl in here.”

      Hilarious pun.

    • Tel says:

      International Socialism vs National Socialism.

      Anyhow, some people do advocate large tax transfers from wealthy countries to various international aid agencies (including the UN). There’s quite a long list of these agencies. Whether they actually help the poor is perhaps a difficult question, but ask yourself whether government handouts help the poor in your own country. If anything it just entrenches intergenerational poverty.

  3. K.P. says:

    That was very well put. I guess one objection to be made is that… presently, it’s not as simple as that! (I know, not exactly groundbreaking)

    Let’s say Israel opened it’s borders to it’s neighbors, would there not soon be genocide? Sadly, there might be practical reasons to be unjust.

    • Tel says:

      Even ignoring the friction of cultural incompatibility, what would happen to the average standard of living? What about productivity?

  4. Major_Freedom says:

    The interesting thing about Caplan (actually this is the case for all utilitarian oriented libertarians) is that his libertarianism would be internally inconsistent (meaning he would have anti-libertarian desires) if it is not based on rationalism.

    If we assume then that his libertarianism is internally consistent, then it must be based on rationalism. But then if it is based on rationalism, then he should be an Austrian, because Austrian economics is the only economic outcome of rationalism. But he says he isn’t an Austrian. So going the other way now, that means his libertarianism isn’t based on rationalism. This in turn means his libertarianism is internally inconsistent, which means he has anti-libertarian desires.

    So in an indirect manner, we can know that Caplan is actually in the same boat as the people he’s criticizing.

    (I think I am the only libertarian in my more local circle who thinks it is even unjustified to aggress against another individual to save the entire human race from an asteroid destroying the Earth (for example the guy who won’t pay $10 tax increase, as “his share”. I have yet to see any flaw explained in it. I hear a lot of gasps and so on, but never any solid, rationally grounded argument. In fact, what I do see, are libertarians telling me it is justified to aggress against another human when they really really feel like it’s OK. They never see how that totally destroys liberty, because once you admit minarchist libertarianism, well, you know the rest, since you’re living in it.

    • Major_Freedom says:

      Ok that’s a lot of opening brackets…

    • Major_Freedom says:

      I would very much like to see where or how there are flaws in the ethic that prohibits aggressing against people to keep them alive.

      • James says:

        The ethic that prohibits aggressing against people to keep them alive has this flaw: If people followed this ethic without exception, it would sometimes lead to worse outcomes when better outcomes are available. That is, people would sometimes die as a result of easily avoidable circumstances.

        I suspect you already know the answer but just don’t agree that this is a flaw.

      • Shailesh says:

        MF –

        I am an utilitarian oriented libertarian. The flaw I see in your ethic is that it ignores human nature – selfish, utilitarian, etc.

        The entire human race will never be prepared to die to save the ‘natural right’ of one individual to not be attacked by other men.

        So, yes, might makes right. As a corollary, the powerful politicians are justified in killing us lesser men for selfish reasons just as we lesser men are justified in killing animals for selfish reasons. It is just plain foolish of lesser men like us to empower these greedy politicians against ourselves.

        Fortunately, economic laws/human nature/general tech advancements will ensure rapid reduction of this foolishness and there will be a lot more people willing to support ‘truly’ egalitarian principles like NAP.

    • Rick Hull says:

      > If we assume then that his libertarianism is internally consistent, then it must be based on rationalism. But then if it is based on rationalism, then he should be an Austrian, because Austrian economics is the only economic outcome of rationalism.

      Gee MF that’s a tiny little universe of discourse you’ve created.

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