George Borjas, the most academically reputable critic of immigration in economics, is now blogging. To be frank, I just don't get him. There isn't a decent economist alive who would oppose free trade in textiles by pointing out that it hurts American textile workers. But Borjas has made a career out of pointing out that unskilled immigration hurts unskilled natives. (The only surprising thing is how small an effect he finds). A major point of economic reasoning, as far as I'm concerned, is going beyond the obvious losers of trade to all of the less-obvious - but equally human - winners.
For Caplan, immigration is just another form of trade. It's trade in labor rather than trade in goods, but, to him, it's all the same thing. He wouldn't care if, instead of illegal immigrants, we imported remote-controlled robots to do the work, with the controllers living comfortably in Mexico.
The problem is, as I pointed out in my post about changes in political culture, when we import immigrants, we aren't just importing economic inputs. We are importing people, people who have beliefs and practices, people who vote in our elections and shape our culture. I'm totally down with free trade -- if we could import remote-controlled robots to mow our lawns and pick our vegetables, I'd be all for it. But the fact is, we can't. and we have to consider the long-run impact on our social, economic, and political culture. And one glance at Mexico and Latin America tells you that it can't be good.
But now, thanks to James Miller over at Tech Central Station, I get the joy of finding out that Caplan's own work supports my argument. As Miller explains:
Although very pro-immigration himself, economist Bryan Caplan provides a powerful argument against allowing millions of new uneducated illegal immigrants to become citizens. As he explains in The Myth of the Rational Voter, the lower a person's level of education, the less likely he is to politically support intelligent economic policies. So providing a path to citizenship for millions of uneducated illegals may eventually provide millions of votes for harmful economic policies.
In other words, while opening up the borders may well be a more libertarian thing to do, it is likely to lead to a far less libertarian society in the long term, because the poorer, less-educated immigrants are likely to vote for bad economic policies. Well, I understand why Democrats want legalization. It's still not clear why President George W. Bush wants to do it.
And Miller makes another point as well, one that seems pretty obvious. Low-wage immigrants end up using government services which cost us all money:
Much of the cost of new immigrants comes from the government services they consume. In 1900 the U.S. provided relatively few government benefits to anyone, so poorly paid immigrants couldn't become too much of a burden on the economy. Today, however, government spending is about five times larger (as a percentage of the economy) than it was in 1900. And legal immigrants today have the right to consume considerable government services. Indeed, according to the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector, in 1994 the average low-skilled immigrant household received $30,160 in direct governmental benefits. But this same average family paid only $10,573 in taxes. As a result, low skilled immigrants are net tax eaters. (But read this for a contrary view.) The difference between the taxes paid by unskilled immigrants and the government benefits these immigrants receive is mostly made up by taxes imposed on U.S. citizens. Such additional taxes slow our economy.
It's a classic example of the theory of the second best. Sure, we'd be better off if we had no welfare state. But we aren't the sink-or-swim country we were in 1900, and one of the prices we pay for this relatively more-lavish welfare state is that poor immigrants end up getting the benefits. Note that I'm not saying that they're lazy and shiftless people who come here to get welfare. I'm sure they work very hard, for low pay. But these social services are available, and they would be idiots not to take advantage of them.
For whatever reason, Caplan seems to have this blind spot where immigration is concerned. Sure, the principle of comparative advantage tells us there are gains from trade. But there are also some pretty hefty externalities, which he doesn't seem to want to consider.
And let me add this, something else that is wrong with him. Read this other passage from Caplan:
Borjas' latest post just reinforces my puzzlement. He blogs his research showing that immigration increases black crime by reducing black wages. In other words, "The immigrants made me do it." I'm not surprised by the result, but I'd think the obvious solution (drug legalization aside) is harsher punishments for a few thousand murderers, not exile for millions of hard-working immigrants.
"Exile"? "Exile"? Dude, they're illegal immigrants. They have no legal right to be here in the first place. If I am kicked out of France it's hardly an "exile." Exile is being kicked out of your home. Sending them back home isn't "exile."
Might I suggest that this particularly bad turn of phrase is revealing indeed. As an economist, Bryan Caplan is trained to think about everybody's welfare equally. To him, a unit of social utility is a unit of social utility -- if illegal immigration makes (current) Mexicans better off and worsens the life of (current) Americans, well, it's good if the benefits to the Mexicans are greater than the costs to us. In this sense, Caplan's loyalties are to humanity, and not to the United States and his fellow citizens.
He's entitled to take that view if he pleases. But surely the rest of us are entitled to weigh the costs to ourselves and our fellow Americans above those to current Mexicans. And surely we have the right to expect the President of the United States to act as our agent in this matter. I just castigated the Foreign Minister of Mexico for his arrogance. But, even so, I expect him to put his loyalty to his own country first. I expect the same of our President, George W. Bush.