Poor Arguments for Immigration

Via econlog's blogroll, I've been reading the new and excellent Growthology. Tim Kane, one of the proprietors, had this to say about immigration:

America needs more unskilled immigrants, too. Let's face it, without unskilled immigration to North America, I wouldn't exist. Neither would you, in all probability (if you're an American). And that whole existence thing hasn't turned out so bad, has it?

As a policy matter, I hold a firm conviction, based in empirical data, that the American experiment since 1789 has been an economic success. And one of the core principles of Americanism is openness to immigration.

The first claim, that we wouldn't exist without immigration, is true but irrelevant. We wouldn't exist if virtually anything in history had been different. If a brewery in North Carolina hadn't been built, my parents never would have met there. This is hardly an argument for, say, government subsidizing the brewing industry.

The second, more subtle argument is that open immigration has worked in the past, so there's no reason for it not to work out fine today. Well, what's changed in America since open immigration ended? For starters the population has increased from 125 million or so to in excess of 300 million. Government spending was under 10% of GDP in 1920. The percent of the workforce with college degrees in skilled professions was a fraction of what it is today. The transportation costs of reaching the United States has fallen drastically. Etc.

None of which, by the way, says that open immigration couldn't work. What it does say is mechanistically saying it worked alright in the past, therefore it must be fine today, isn't very persuasive.

Our own Micha says here :

If we take your claim on its own terms, and assume that immigrants make conditions in the U.S. less attractive and not more, then it is preposterous to assume that 25% or more (i.e. “billions”) of the world’s population would immigrate here, unless we first ignore the dynamic effects of immigration itself. The more people arrive - assuming as you do that immigration is a net harm - the less attractive immigration becomes to potential immigrants, and thus immigration tapers off at an equilibrium.

Now, I realize what he's trying to do, point out a glaring inconsistency in TLB's argument (not exactly a task worthy of someone as smart as Micha). But this isn't exactly a reassuring case to make to skeptics of immigration. If anything, that would strengthen to restrictionist case, that you don't need as many immigrants as feared to cause damage. (I'm aware Micha was granting the premise that immigration damages living standards, a proposition with which he does not agree. But I simply don't see how this is a case for open borders.)

Obligatory Hansononian disclaimer : Just because I believe A is a poor argument for B does not mean I oppose B.

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Well, what's changed in

Well, what's changed in America since open immigration ended?

The evidence you cite might be relevant for an immigration restrictionist who rested their case on economic arguments. So I agree with you that the "It has worked in the past" response isn't convincing in response to economic worries (on it's own, at least, but it is a point in favor of immigration, when combined with other data points). But I think it is a stronger response to cultural claims. If the culture could handle assimilation then, why can't it handle it now? And even in terms of economic claims, we are able to look back at the great migrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and make per-capita adjusted and immigrant-relative-to-foreign born adjusted comparisons.

If anything, that would strengthen to restrictionist case, that you don't need as many immigrants as feared to cause damage.

Perhaps, but that wasn't the argument TLB was making, and that wasn't the argument I was responding to. It's worth pointing out the dynamic effects of immigration; even though I believe immigration as it currently exists is a net benefit to current U.S. citizens, and would continue to be a net benefit for many more millions to come, there is a natural point at which the economic benefits of moving to the U.S. may exceed the relative benefits of moving elsewhere or not moving at all, assuming things do not get much worse everywhere else other than the U.S. And the nice thing about this dynamic effect is that no economic policy maker needs to calculate the optimal number of immigrants and then enforce this limit. The limit naturally arises for each individual making the decision to move or remain.

the nice thing about this

the nice thing about this dynamic effect is that no economic policy maker needs to calculate the optimal number of immigrants and then enforce this limit.

But the not-so-nice thing about it, assuming arguendo that you think high immigration lowers living standards, is that the mechanism that allows this equilibrium to be reached is a degradation of the condition of the receiving country. That's (as I read him) TLB's fear, and I don't understand how your argument allays it.

Curunir, The problem you

Curunir,

The problem you outlined is the same problem economists have in trying to convince protected industries (or people who feel that they constitute a protected economic class) why they shouldn't support protectionism. Sometimes it just isn't possible to make this argument successfully to everyone. An industry that profits from trade barriers shielding them from competition may not be interested in free trade, no matter the argument given. But that doesn't mean everyone else won't be interested. As consumers, the lower prices far outweigh the gains protected industries make.

So too, low-skilled native workers may not benefit from greater exposure to labor competition. And some won't be open to argument. But they will benefit as consumers, and the net is generally positive. That doesn't make it a bad argument for immigration, just a difficult-to-make argument, as free trade is often a difficult to make argument, with many winners and many losers.

First, an aside: Is anyone

First, an aside: Is anyone else unable to access the front page when not logged in?

If the culture could handle assimilation then, why can't it handle it now?

And I think it is handling it now. But let's not forget that even in the heydey of open immigration, the percent foreign born in the United States was scarcely different than it is now. In 1920, the last census before European immigration was curtailed in 1924, the foreign born population was just over 13%. It is now ... about 12.5%. It's just not the case that America successfully integrated a massively greater foreign population in the past than it is now. Which is, I reiterate, not a statement that it couldn't.

Ah is that it? I don't know

Ah is that it? I don't know if being logged has something to do with it, but in the recent days, DR has mostly been a long dump of sql errors for me.

The greatest challenge to assimilating immigration right now is the schizophrenic view that defends multiculturalism while opposing segregation. This did not use to be a problem.

How is that view

How is that view schizophrenic? It's just a tension in pluralistic liberalism. People should have the freedom to live a variety of cultural lifestyles, but should be encouraged to integrate and assimilate.

Contrary to popular belief

Non sequitur

Who was talking about the 17th century? I thought we were talking about the late 18th and early 19th century. Although upon rereading the original post, I see why you would mention that.

And even if it is the case that individual American colonies in the 17th century were hostile to immigrants, that doesn't refute the claim that "one of the core principles of Americanism is openness to immigration." After all, the system as a whole can be open to immigration even if no specific colony is. The system allows unpopular minority groups to emigrate and start their own colonies, even if it doesn't allow them to assimilate into existing ones.