Friday, March 15, 2013

Three unconventional theses on immigration policy

Well two new ones. The first is old hat on this blog, but it's still unconventional I think.

These three ideas are also an example of why I will never be a successful politician.

1. It's a really bad idea to give high skill immigrants a leg up in the immigration process. It's market planning that we would balk at if we did it for foreign investment or foreign trade but for some reason it's palatable for foreign flows in labor. We do not have high skill labor shortages and decades of research has shown that. The high skill immigration programs are often exploitative of workers. Science and engineering market failures are principally on the demand side, not the supply side. Plus it simply goes against our values. If we went all-in for an Australian or Canadian style points system program we might as well just remove the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" plaque from the Statue of Liberty.

2. Illegal immigrants are exactly who we want here and occasional amnesty is not that bad of a policy. Most people insist they love immigrants but want them to be here legally and talk about how illegal immigration is unfair to people who wait in line to be legal immigrants. But being an illegal immigrant reveals important information about the immigrant: these people really want to be here. They want to be here so much they will take personal risks to avoid the wait. They also like American society more than they like Congress or the federal bureaucracy. That doesn't seem like that bad of a perspective to have. People will also sometimes talk about how amnesty is bad because it sends mixed signals and it will indicate that our commitment to immigration enforcement isn't credible. But amnesty legitimates the immigrants who have revealed this important information about themselves in the decision to come over illegally. Of course there are a lot of problems with illegal immigration, even for the immigrant themselves. They obviously don't get to live fulfilling lives while their status is in that kind of limbo. So I'm not necessarily advocating restricting immigration flows just to get a crop of dedicated illegals. What I'm saying is that people need to think about the self-selection implied by illegal immigration and realize that those are exactly the sort of people we want as fellow citizens. How many natives would go to such length to get into the United States?

3. The population that should benefit from immigration policy is a moving target. You hear two different things on this issue. First, the Bryan Caplan types think that we should maximize global welfare. I think this is obviously wrong. When we get together to form a government we do it to satisfy our own needs and internalize our own externalities. The world should have no expectation of free riding on our collective action. That doesn't mean we don't care about the world when we make policy - it's only to say that the social welfare of the world should only enter policymaking to the extent that American citizens value the social welfare of the world. So policy should be made to maximize the welfare of Americans. This is fine for most policy, except immigration. When it comes to immigration the very question of which population has standing in these decisions is a moving target because the whole policy debate is about who is and is not an American! Now it's possible there's a stochastically dominant policy that will be preferred no matter what the population of "Americans" that we decide on is, but that's not guaranteed. The question of whose utility we are maximizing and what immigration policy should be is self-referential. What I draw from that is that we shouldn't stake too much on thinking about a specific population that we're trying to help. We should rely on other decision rules and principles. The Bryan Caplan types should stop talking about what's best for the world and the rest of the country besides the Bryan Caplan types should stop talking about what's best for Americans.


  1. I never voted for that plaque on the statue of liberty. Canada & Australia's systems just seem to work better.

    On #3, do you recall the analogy at EconLog to a corporation issuing more stock and taking on more stockholders? That also represents a "moving target". In general I distrust what the Austrians would call "polylogism", and would prefer a more unified theory regarding what preferences to take into account.

    1. I distrust polylogism too (as a general rule - certainly I'm willing to admit culture, language, etc. leads people to think somewhat differently).

      I don't think different preferences or different incentives or circumstances amounts to polylogism.

  2. #2 The way the line is constructed is asinine. Thus people ignore it.

    #3 I don't really have much use for fictive social contracts.

    #4 Immigration policy has little to say about who enters and exits a country unless you're willing to go full on autarky as the Soviet Union did in the 1920s-1930s.

  3. "But being an illegal immigrant reveals important information about the immigrant: these people really want to be here."

    But being an illegal obtainer of Television Sets reveals important information about the Television Set Obtainer: these people really want TVs.


    1. True, but there's the whole theft element of the TV thing that's not there with immigration.

    2. How comes that "illegal immigrant" seems more legal to you than "illegal obtainer"?

      If your position is that laws matter now but there is a higher morality, one under which illegally obtaining something is bad, but illegally immigrating is not bad, then perhaps that's a new and interesting theology.

      Perhaps a propertarian theology: one under which it is immoral to violate the right to a better life of property owners, whether that be by depriving them of a TV set or of cheaper and more docile workers.

  4. It is not like we don't have immigration. If someone wants to make a case then come up with an argument about the appropriate level. It should be something more than greater than zero and less than infinity.

  5. I am astonished that the most stubborn fact about illegal or legal immigration is not mentioned: 90% of the issue is simply labor arbitrage.

    Illegal or legal immigrants from countries with equivalent costs of living and wages are almost never the issue; the issue is almost entirely immigration, legal and especially illegal, from countries with much lower costs of living and wages.

    Where the property and business lobby wants as much immigration as possible, ideally illegal immigration, to drive down wages and drive up capital gains.

    The dream is a large pool of desperate "metic" workers with no political rights. A Kuwaiti situation perhaps, or Texas on a smaller scale.

    Most other discussions of the issue like the above are clever misdirections.

  6. My response to this post turned into a full-length post of its own.


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