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The Priority of Immigration

September 26, 2012

Vipul Naik and Bryan Caplan have been having an interesting conversation lately about the level of priority which the immigration issue should be given.

Vipul Naik asks: For a libertarian who is broadly convinced by the case for open borders, primarily from the libertarian perspective (but also based on other aspects of the case), how important should support or advocacy for open borders be, relative to other libertarian causes?

I checked my own blog, and was very surprised at the lack of references to immigration. There are a couple spots where I say more immigration would be good, but overall not much. So I hearby advocate immigration for anyone satisfying three requirements:

1. No history of criminal behavior.
2. Cannot have any contagious disease.
3. Must have some evidence of ability to work productively in society such as a college degree, being skilled in a profession, or a job offer from an American company, or be wealthy enough that the immigrant won’t be a burden on the welfare system.

Immigration is a big deal for anyone who cares about overall human welfare. If you take someone someone from a poor country and put them in a rich country, their life expectancy doubles and their income increases by a factor of twenty. Economic growth is the process of moving resources from low valued uses to higher valued uses. It makes no sense to randomly draw some lines on a map and then stop the most productive resource of all, labor, from crossing those lines. Despite the popular misconception, immigration does not reduce native wages.

The most serious objection to open immigration is political. If very high levels of immigration destabilized the destination country’s government, the advantages of immigration would be greatly reduced. There are a couple reasons why this might happen. First, the infrastructure and welfare systems of the destination country could be overwhelmed by the influx. To avoid this, I think a reasonable maximum immigration level could be imposed, but to be honest, that level is far higher than the U.S. currently faces. U.S. immigration could be doubled or tripled without getting close to the infrastructural limit of immigration. Second, governments somewhat follow the belief structure of the people they govern. One reason why some countries have terrible institutions is that people in those countries support bad ideas. A country’s average IQ has a bigger impact on someone’s wage than their own IQ. A country with a good government could be flooded by people with bad political ideas and thus destroy the goose that lays the golden eggs. Perhaps it would be a good idea not to let first generation immigrants vote, and presumably their children would be assimilated enough into the culture not to destroy it. You can’t take this argument too far. If you really wanted to take to extremes, you should actually kick out stupid citizens as well as restrict stupid immigrants, but no one advocates that. In any event, there is no reason to ever restrict high skilled immigrants. The number of available H-1B visas should be 6 billion.

Immigration is a crucial issue, which is not given enough attention (including by me). The world would be a better place if it were dramatically higher. There is no good moral reason why people should be trapped in terrible countries in abject poverty when a relatively easy way exists to dramatically improve their lives. Xenophobes should be ashamed of themselves for condemning others to poverty just so they don’t have to live near people with a different skin color.

Further reading:
Adam Ozimek comments
Emigration from authoritarian regimes destabilizes those regimes.

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