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5 questions with Bryan Caplan on open borders

AEIdeas

What would an actual open borders regime look like? How would it affect those already living in the United States? Bryan Caplan explores these questions in his most recent book, co-produced with illustrator Zach Weinersmith, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration.

Bryan Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University and a regular blogger at EconLog. He’s also the author of three previous books: The Case Against Education, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and The Myth of the Rational Voter.

Below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation. You can read our full discussion here. You can also subscribe to my podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or download the podcast on Ricochet.

Pethokoukis: “Open borders” sounds like a pretty drastic policy to most people. People imagine that we’ll just have a turnstile at the border, counting people as they come in. But what do you mean when you talk about this?

Caplan: That would be fine, but I think the key idea of open borders is that anyone can take a job anywhere. You’re free to live and work in any country. Of course, you still have to pay for your housing and find a job, but if you can arrange for those then you’re allowed to do it.

In terms of what I’d consider the conceptual border: The way I sometimes describe it is, “Unless you belong in jail, you can go where you want.”

Doesn’t a country need to have borders? This sounds like an attempt to create a Star Trek-like world where the United States as a nation would cease to exist.

I’ve written a whole chapter on the possibility of a totalitarian world, and my view is that world government is the most likely route. So I’m not a fan of world government by any means.

But the argument about the necessity of a strong border is just silly. The US had hundreds of years of open borders. The idea that just because the border’s open, you’re not a country anymore — unless you’re going to say that the US didn’t become a country until 1921 or something like that, then of course you can have open borders and be a country.

New citizens stand during the National Anthem at a naturalization ceremony at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library in Manhattan. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

What about the problem of assimilation? We’re culturally distinct from other places, and an open-door policy might allow people who don’t share our values to live here.

I’d say we actually have some big advantages in assimilation compared to what we had in the past.

In the 1900s, when you get a Sicilian peasant coming to Ellis Island, he’s probably never heard English or used electricity. All he knows is farming in the Sicilian mountains. He arrives in Manhattan, and that’s serious culture shock.

Today, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone like that, because American culture has transformed the world. It has spread far and wide — knowledge of English is very high in countries that, 100 years ago, it would’ve been very unusual to speak English. Right now, you’ve got about 1.3 billion fluent speakers of English on Earth, and most of those are not actually in countries where English is the first language.

That’s not to mention that most of our assimilation procedures are way more advanced than classroom lectures about American history. The research shows that political knowledge, even among the native US population, has always been near zero. I don’t think the public school curriculum was ever very important for assimilation compared to the labor market, and shopping, and making friends, and just the ability to get along in society.

Restrictionists have the utmost confidence that your world is a place where massive immigrant flows will drive down wages and push less-skilled Americans out of jobs. Why do you think they’re wrong?

In terms of the empirical work, there’s a very standard view that the effect of immigration on US wages is very slight. There’s basically a debate between people who say, “We can’t find any,” those that say it’s slight, and then another side that says, “Actually, even for low-skilled workers we’re seeing gains. Because the immigrants don’t just compete with you, they also sell you stuff.” That’s a really important thing to keep in mind.

People do tend to focus so much on, “What does this do to me as a worker?” rather than “What does this do to me as a consumer?” But if you want to understand how it affects your life, you want to consider both things at once.

You’re making the case that we need more than just high-skill immigrants — we need the low-skill ones, too. What makes you think that they will be gainfully employed at a time when it looks like so many of these tasks are going to be automated in the near future?

I wish the rise of robots were true, but there’s no sign of it in the data. Really, the golden age of automation seemed to be from the 20s to the 70s, and since then, things have slowed down. What we’ve got now is a lot of science fiction that is parading as fact, and it’s just quite silly.

There’s a long history of automation. Naïve people think it’s going to put people out of work permanently and impoverish workers. They’ve been wrong 100 percent of the time.

Which, I have to say, when you started getting tractors in agriculture, if you had tried telling people, “Don’t worry about it! You’re going to find something else to do,” almost anyone would’ve said, “That sounds great — so what is the thing we’re going to do? Other than agriculture, the industry that has absorbed 99 percent of human labor for the last 10,000 years?”

Probably, you would’ve been stumped by this and said, “Uh, well, there could be, I don’t know, more factories?” And they’d be like, “How many shirts can one man wear? I already have two — why would I need more?” And yet, it is the person who’s saying, “We’ll find something else to do” who was the wise person. Not only did things end up fine, they’re awesome compared to the way they were in 1850.