Immigration

My New "Regulatory Review" Article on How Immigration Restrictions Harm US Citizens

Would-be migrants are not the only victims of immigration restrictions. Natives also suffer in a wide variety of ways.

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Regulatory Review, a publication affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania Program on Regulation, has just posted my new article on how immigration restrictions harm US citizens, as well as would-be immigrants. Here is an excerpt:

Immigration policy is often framed as pitting the interests of would-be immigrants against those of native-born Americans. It is indeed true that immigration restrictions seriously harm potential migrants, many of whom end up being relegated to a lifetime of poverty and oppression based merely on having been born to the wrong parents or in the wrong place. But restrictions also often inflict severe economic harm and injustice on current American citizens. These harms are often given short shrift in public discourse, and they are often excluded from standard estimates of the burden of government regulation on the U.S. economy. But they are real nonetheless…

The successful development of two COVID-19 vaccines (one just approved by regulators in the United States and elsewhere, and one that will likely be approved soon) could put an end to the epidemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives in the United States and around the world. Importantly, both vaccines were developed by firms led by immigrants or children of immigrants…

Few immigrants are likely to make contributions on the scale of the COVID-19 vaccines. But the exclusion of large numbers of migrants inevitably means barring some who could make extraordinary advances. And the loss of even those few is a huge cost.

Moreover, even "ordinary" immigrants collectively make enormous economic contributions….

Perhaps we should let in migrants who seem likely to become valuable workers but keep out most others. This reasoning, however, assumes that government can do a good job allocating labor and predicting which people will make useful contributions. That assumption is unlikely to be true. If it were sound, the Soviet Union would have been a great economic success.

Many of the greatest immigrant scientists and entrepreneurs came from humble origins and would have been excluded under current proposals for so-called "merit-based" immigration. The world is full of people with modest initial credentials who could achieve great things in a society that offers them a meaningful opportunity to do so. By excluding them, we shoot ourselves in the foot….

Economic harm is far from the only cost of migration restrictions to American citizens. The law enforcement apparatus established to keep out and deport undocumented migrants unavoidably threatens the civil liberties of all Americans.

Because of weak due process protections in the immigration enforcement system, the federal government detains and sometimes deports thousands of U.S. citizens every year after mistaking them for undocumented immigrants….

The last part of the article briefly summarizes ways in which potential negative effects of migration can be addressed without excluding people. I discuss that issue in much greater detail in Chapter 6 of my book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom.

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  1. Hi, Ilya. Before you suggest others’ economic interests get carpet bombed to suppress wages, and to enrich the tech billionaires with lower wages, do one thing. Advocate that the Mexican lawyer license be fully recognized in all 50 states. Mexico is even more overlawyered than the US, thus their sky high crime rates. Those lawyers making $40000 would love to come here. Their massive numbers and low fees would really help the natives, who need a lot more lawyering.

    1. Why even restrict it to actual lawyers? How about permitted “undocumented” lawyers to practice law? Let’s see what Ilya says when *he* is only able to earn the minimum wage….

      Personally, I find it damn insulting to be told that I benefit from the deflation of my earning ability. And as to the vaccine, we wouldn’t have needed it in the first place if it wasn’t people coming from other parts of the world bringing it with them.

      I consider it a form of theft — people from away are coming here and stealing from me. Stealing my earning potential instead of my bank account, but it still is a loss of my property.

      1. The theft from your bank account is coming from the Federal Reserve.

  2. Let’s address a few of Ilya’s points..

    “In the early to mid-20th century, the United States became a world leader in technology in large part by attracting talent from all over the world.”

    In the mid 20th century, the U.S. had its lowest share of foreign born population in 100 years (7% in 1950, 5% in 1960). That seems to contradict Ilya’s point that we need “more” immigration. This era saw some of the largest wage gains by the middle class. Today we’re sitting at 14% of the US population being foreign born, and we’re seeing fairly low wage gains by the middle class.

    1. It’s well-established that US basic research in that era was fueled just about entirely by immigrants from Europe.

      Like, we know their names.

      As to your random correlation with middle class wage gains, that’s just…well, a random correlation.

      1. “It’s well-established that US basic research in that era was fueled just about entirely by immigrants from Europe.
        Like, we know their names.”

        That’s actually surprisingly inaccurate. Just to quantify it, we can look at Nobel Prize Winners in Chemistry during the 1950’s and early 60’s (I got tired of looking at 1961). During this time, 5 Americans won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. And they were all born in America. People like Linus Pauling, Glenn Seaborg, Melvin Calvin, and more.

        There were a few famous German ex-pats. But to say “just about all US basic research was done by immigrants” is amazingly inaccurate about the scientific history in this country.

        1. And the German scientists were a unique situation — unlike other immigrants seeking a better life, they already were quite successful and happy in their tenured university positions in Germany. But for Hitler, and then the war, they’d never have left.

          Some, like Einstein, fled because they could see the Holocaust coming. Others, like Von Braun, didn’t want to live under Soviet rule.

          But this was the social elite coming over here — a unique situation.

          1. Gee. Maybe we shouldn’t compare Einstein with Von Braun.

            Von Braun was delighted with totalitarian rule when he was on top, and had slave laborers helping him build his rockets.

            In general, the scientists who arrived in the 1930’s tended to be different from those who came after the war in certain ways.

          2. German, Hungarian, Italian, some British.

            Again, we know their names.

            1. “we know their names”

              Great, what are the names?

              1. There’s the Martians, of course (Leó Szilárd, Paul Erdős, Paul Halmos, Theodore von Kármán, John von Neumann, George Pólya, Leó Szilárd, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner.

                Enrico Fermi, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac.

                Plenty more, if you care to look.

                Did you think I was lying or something?

                1. Did you think I was lying or something?

                  Well, you were posting. *rimshot*

                  But seriously, how does throwing out a few names get you to “fueled just about entirely by”? You might actually be able to make a valid point if you could keep yourself from larding it up with hyperbole.

                  1. Because they were scientific elites, looked up to by their American fellows and by politicians, and changed the culture more towards examining fundamentals.
                    Plus, you know, the Manhattan Project. These foreign born scientists provided a great object lesson in the benefits of basic research for the US public.

                    You can find quotes from the 1930s of US leaders disparaging the European head-in-the-clouds take on science. We used science to build things, to feed people while they twiddled with atoms.

                    All of this is general trends – you can find exceptions on both sides, but the trend is pretty undeniable.

                    And then they were mostly still alive during the Cold War, and helped us see scientific talent and science as another battlefield in the endless series of proxy wars in that era; solidifying America’s respect for basic research for a generation.
                    Until, of course, the USSR fell. America cancelled the SSC, nearly cancelled Space Station Freedom, and has been increasingly skeptical of basic research v. applied ever since.

                    That second trend is the more controversial one. I think it’s pretty easy to establish with some examinations of trends in federal spending on various types of science, and audits of the NSF, etc, but there’s ways to explain it in other ways.

                    And that’s my thesis in a nutshell!

        2. It’s not surprisingly inaccurate. The US turn from applied to basic research can be directly tied to the influx of European scientists in the mid century.

          I did my thesis on it, actually, (and the subsequent cold war and then long slow turn back towards applied).

          1. “European scientists”

            Most immigrants are not scientists, European or otherwise.

            1. Which has nothing to do with this comment thread.

          2. And yet, you somehow miss Seaborg, Pauling, Calvin, Sumner, Northrop, Stanley, McMillan, Richards, Langmuir, Urey, Vigneaud, Libby, Woodward, and more. These are just the Nobel Prize winners, and just in one field…and all born in the US.

            1. Ah yes, you took out the strawman that there were no American scientists before this.
              Also a nice job talking about Nobels. Because that’s really what I was hitting hard.

              1. It’s not a Strawman if it’s the very statement you made…

                Sarcastro:
                “It’s well-established that US basic research in that era was fueled just about entirely by immigrants from Europe.”

                1. Yeah, I see the part where I said there were no American scientists.

                  Quit being dumb and engage with what I’m talking about, not what you wish I was saying.

  3. What about the food trucks?

    Now do all the science aborted babies could have done, if we’re doing hypotheticals.

  4. The real question here is not “is immigration good or bad?”, but “What level of immigration (or foreign born population) is optimal?”

    Some immigration can bring in growth, opportunities and more. Higher levels of immigration, especially in certain areas, can results in wage suppression for the native population (The examples of H1-B visas is a good example). Overall the economy goes up, as the owners of the business save on labor and the new immigrant gets more income, but the native workers lose out. Higher levels of immigration also result in slower cultural assimilation, which causes greater ethnic divides. The US has typically varied between ~5% and ~15% foreign born population. On the higher end of that spectrum, ethnic divides and conflicts have become more prominent, while wage growth stalled. On the lower end, wage growth excelled.

    At even higher levels of immigration, some suppression of the immigrant class is required, lest it overtake the native population and subsume it. Very few countries exceed 15%-20% immigration (especially non-culturally related immigration). These countries tend to be middle eastern countries which “import” Indian labor on labor contracts. These import workers aren’t given real democratic rights…if they were, they would overtake the native population.

    History is replete with examples where an immigrant population unchecked, overtook and subsumed the native population, eventually relegating it to second tier status. Whether it be 1830’s Texas, Massachusetts in 1650 or Rome in 300.

    1. I don’t think you can assume there is some threshold that is universal across all societies after which things are bad.

      Pretty sure colonists aren’t the same thing as immigrants. Rather more shooty, for one thing.

      1. Colonists are just a sub-classification of immigrant.

        They’re especially notable when the native population doesn’t have the capability to control the country anymore in a given region, because they are outnumbered by the new immigrants.

        Plenty of other immigrants can be just as “shooty” these days. MS-13 for instance…

        1. MS-13 are not colonists.

          1. But they’re plenty “shooty.”

            1. Well your argument is that they’re like colonists, so you fail.

              1. Incorrect.

                1. 1. Pretty sure colonists aren’t the same thing as immigrants. Rather more shooty, for one thing.

                  2. Plenty of other immigrants can be just as “shooty” these days. MS-13 for instance…

                  It looks like you’re arguing that colonists are immigrants because MS-13 are colonists.

    2. Massachusetts in 1850 is a better example than 1650 because Oliver Cromwell’s rise & fall affected the later. Remember that they got their charter yanked afterwards.

      Today Massachusetts is the second most Catholic state, with adjacent Rhode Island being first.

  5. “. . . many of whom end up being relegated to a lifetime of poverty and oppression based merely on having been born to the wrong parents or in the wrong place.”

    While I’m generally agree with Prof. Somin’s stance on immigration, concerning this particular point, I would rather see the US work with allies and international organizations to alleviate oppression where it is.

    An immigrant leaving a poor, oppressive country does not make the poor, oppressive country any better.

    1. In fact, it often makes it worse, somewhat paradoxically

    2. poor oppressive countries are poor for the same reason they’re oppressive – government oppression creates poverty. (For an example playing out in real time, Venezuela).

      Making the country better requires overthrowing the government. The US history of attempting to do this does not have any notable successes.

      1. Well, outside of the US’s overthrowing of its own government in 1776…

        Realistically, you can also probably include the US’s overthrowing of the German government in 1945 and the Japanese government in 1945 as notable successes.

        1. Forcing the capitulation of the German or Japanese governments was not ‘overthrowing’ them.

          From the allied acceptance of Japanese conditional acceptance of the Potsdam declaration: “The ultimate form of government of Japan shall, in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration, be established by the freely expressed will of the Japanese people.”

          The US did not remove the Emperor, or force the Japanese to change their government.

          Germany’s government effectively self-disintegrated (including Hitler’s suicide).

          Now, I’ll grant you 1776. Which implies something about overthrowing oppressive governments – generally it has to be done within the country. (And then pray that you’ve got a diverse enough power structure among the successful rebellion to pre-empt an oppressive follow-up).

          1. “The US did not remove the Emperor, or force the Japanese to change their government.”

            Ehhh… That’s stretching things a bit too far. The US almost certainly DID force the Japanese to change their government to a parliamentary democracy. Under MacArthur’s guidance, the Japanese Constitution was vastly changed, and the Emperor’s powers were very sharply limited…

      2. Well, the US overthrew the German & Japanese governments in 1945…

    3. Nor do immigrants help by reducing people in the new country to a lifetime of poverty…

  6. Let me guess. Another completely one-sided narrative that ignores or hand-waves away the suffering of anyone who experiences crime or economic dislocation or lack of opportunity for employment due to immigration. Only people who benefit matter. The rest can get chewed up and forgotten about because the spreadsheet model shows a positive number at the bottom.

    1. It definitely makes for a more constructive discussion that rather than actually read the paper, we should guess what’s in it and then criticize that.

      1. Just read it. Of course my guess was correct, even down to the structure of the essay, with the quote at the end: “Even if some negative side effects of immigration cannot be eliminated or mitigated, they must be weighed against the enormous benefits.” Spreadsheet model has a positive number at the bottom so victims don’t matter.

      2. “we should guess what’s in it ”

        Somin’s arguments are always the same. Immigration good, downsides nonexistent or irrelevant.

        1. It’s common to almost all policy advocacy by any professional class advocate. The policies are all good and victims can be ignored or hand-waved away — because those victims are not like us in the professional classes. They will sometimes consider an effects on victims when those victims are among their client races, but never for immigration.

  7. Increasing the labor supply through immigration lowers wages. That’s supply and demand 101.

    In particular, unprecedented levels of mass immigration is an interventionist policy that transfers wealth from working classes to big businesses and other minority interests.

    Prominent immigration economist George Borjas, for example, calculates that the current mass immigration scheme transfers $500 billion annually from working and middle class employees to the big business interests that benefit from unprecedented levels of immigration.

    Somin’s racist assumption that persons who stay in their homelands will be poor forever, is, well, racist. It is based on the racist premise that countries who have not done well economically in the past will continue to do poorly. But the facts show that when developing countries embrace capitalism and markets, and hopefully achieve moral and stable leadership, they flourish economically and actually have more opportunity for gain than developed countries.

    1. Massive immigration also contributes heavily and inevitably to increased cost of housing, health care, and education.

      Again, these are all things that hit the working class pocketbook hard and cause significant financial pain. But these things are also very good for certain rentier classes, those who already own assets and will see their values inflate, and the rent-seekers in health care and education.

      1. Increasing the labor supply through immigration lowers wages. That’s supply and demand 101.

        Maybe you didn’t study hard enough. Increasing the labor supply through immigration also increases aggregate demand, as the immigrants buy food, housing, cars, etc. That may well increase wages.

        Massive immigration also contributes heavily and inevitably to increased cost of housing, health care, and education.

        Really? Lots of immigrants work in construction trades, building housing among other things. Lots work, at least initially, on the more menial side of health care – attendants, nurses’ assistants, and so on.

        They probably do have the effect you describe on education, whether it’s large or not, and how long it lasts, is open to question. And to the extent they pay taxes they offset this cost to some degree.

        In short, the mental model you are working from is wrong. You implicitly assume that immigrants have only negative effects – that their demand drives up prices but doesn’t produce income for anyone else, that their labor drives down wages but doesn’t provide any additional production.

        Maybe take another class.

        1. Yeah, non-immigrants can be baristas and task rabbits and handymen-for-hire. Or just waste away their hopeless lives on welfare, because no one is ever going to hire anyone even a tiny bit comprised when there’s an endless supply of enterprising foreigners ready to fill all the jobs at every level.

          1. You may want to investigate the “lump of labor” fallacy.

            1. You might want to come up with a new talking point.

              1. One which is simpler for someone like you to understand? Crayons are not a font we can use here, sorry.

        2. I don’t assume, implicitly or otherwise, that immigrants have only negative effects. They don’t.

          However, I am observing the net distributive economic effects of our current immigration scheme. Whether this effect is good, bad, or neutral, is up for debate. To be clear, some benefit from it, while others don’t.

          The two points you made – immigration increasing demand, and contributing to labor force in certain sectors – are credited. However, the general comments I made were already taking such factors into account.

          On the whole, there is no question that our current regime of globally unprecedented immigration levels results in a transfer of wealth among Americans, generally from poorer to richer. This includes all Americans who are immigrants of course, and the effect is disproportionately harmful to black and Hispanic Americans. I am sure you could argue over the precise quantification of these effects and tinker with the $500 billion annual estimate.

          Setting all of that aside, what is your gut opinion on all of this? I saw an estimate that if income inequality had remained constant since the 70s-80s, the average household income would now be around $100,000. You seem like someone who might want to take that into consideration. So if you were king,

          1. What is the optimum number of US immigrants annually under present circumstances? 100k, 1M, 2M?

          2. Assume the sole objective of raising below-median and lower quartile incomes and lifting everyone off of welfare. What then would be your answer to #1, if any different? (Of course this objective requires that you disregard things like the chamber f commerce lobbyists and the profit and loss of silicon valley companies that buy our politicians).

          1. That’s a good question. I think a better metric is the foreign born population numbers. And in terms of that, I think about 10% is a good number.

            1. I didn’t think of it that way but I agree, that’s better.

          2. I don’t assume, implicitly or otherwise, that immigrants have only negative effects. They don’t.

            Glad to hear you say that. You didn’t mention any benefits in the comment I was responding to.

            On the whole, there is no question that our current regime of globally unprecedented immigration levels results in a transfer of wealth among Americans, generally from poorer to richer.

            Any economic change moves wealth around, so the fact that immigration does it is neither here nor there.

            I haven’t seen anything confirming the “from poorer to richer” part.

            I am sure you could argue over the precise quantification of these effects and tinker with the $500 billion annual estimate.

            I’m sure I could argue with Borjas’ number, and would probably do more than “tinker.” I hope you understand that Borjas has a very negative view of immigration. Not to say his figures are dishonest,
            but they are controversial, and there is lots of disagreement with his conclusions. They shouldn’t be taken as gospel. And note that even Borjas does not think there is any overall negative effect on the economy from immigration.

            Here is one criticism of some of his work.

            1. “Any economic change moves wealth around, so the fact that immigration does it is neither here nor there.”

              Yes, any government policy bearing on economics will have effects on the distribution of wealth and income. Taxes, minimum wage laws, trade agreements, and so on.

              One might claim to not care about such effects generally, or claim that a particular effect is desirable, or that a particular effect may be undesirable but is an acceptable trade-off to achieve some other purpose.

              I’m not sure why you say this is “neither here nor there.” Let’s say Republicans scrapped the progressive tax brackets and adopted a regressive income tax, with higher rates on the first, smaller brackets of income. Would you have the same sort of response to that?

              You didn’t answer my question . . .

              The Mariel boatlift study stuff is interesting. The thing is, Borjas’ findings and anything remotely similar would be “controversial” regardless of the strength and quantity of the evidence and studies, because people don’t want it to be true due to the policy implications.

              1. OK.

                What I should have said is that I doubt the effect is as big or as much in one direction as Borjas says, and that in any case looking at annual changes is deceptive, since the impact of immigration is a long-term process.

                The thing is, Borjas’ findings and anything remotely similar would be “controversial” regardless of the strength and quantity of the evidence and studies, because people don’t want it to be true due to the policy implications.

                And some people would support Borjas’ findings regardless of how shoddy the work was. But what makes it controversial is that there are serious arguments that he’s wrong. Did you read the article I linked?

          3. 1. What is the optimum number of US immigrants annually under present circumstances? 100k, 1M, 2M?</i.

            I have no idea. I think giving a specific answer is foolish. If I wre given the job of coming up with a number I would do a lot of research, read a lot of papers, talk to a lot of people, before deciding.

            2. Assume the sole objective of raising below-median and lower quartile incomes and lifting everyone off of welfare. What then would be your answer to #1, if any different? (Of course this objective requires that you disregard things like the chamber f commerce lobbyists and the profit and loss of silicon valley companies that buy our politicians).

            My guess is it wouldn't matter much one way or the other.

        3. “Increasing the labor supply through immigration lowers wages. That’s supply and demand 101.

          Maybe you didn’t study hard enough. Increasing the labor supply through immigration also increases aggregate demand, as the immigrants buy food, housing, cars, etc. That may well increase wages.”

          So, you’re not necessarily incorrect Bernard. The question you have to answer is “what type of immigrants are you getting?”

          For example, if you get immigrants who bring in their own funds to support themselves and don’t work, that will happen, wages will rise. That’s what you often see with US retirees who emigrate to Mexico. This immigrant class will raise wages, due to an increase in aggregate demand, without an increase in labor force.

          Then you have the second side of the coin. An immigrant group who comes in just to work, especially concentrated in a certain field. That will suppress wages in that given field, while increasing demand in other fields. Because aggregate demand in a given country includes the non-workers, on average the wage suppression will be be in excess of any demand gains.

          Then you have the third side. The workers who come in, but save the money and/or send it home. Here, you’re actually pulling aggregate demand OUT of the country, while increasing the labor supply. This will definatly suppress wages.

          1. Then you have the second side of the coin. An immigrant group who comes in just to work, especially concentrated in a certain field. That will suppress wages in that given field

            Then you have the third side. The workers who come in, but save the money and/or send it home. Here, you’re actually pulling aggregate demand OUT of the country, while increasing the labor supply. This will definatly suppress wages.

            Neither one of these propositions is necessarily true.

    2. All you have is Borjas. Every time.

      1. Blacklist scholars who don’t support the preferred narrative, then claim all or almost all scholarly research confirms the narrative. Science!

        1. Yes, that’s what I was saying, Ben. Great reading comprehension.

          1. Of course not. Mustn’t say that stuff directly when blacklisting is in fashion.

            Just miraculously notice the resulting scholarship is almost all on one side.

            1. So the fact that everyone in a field except for one person agrees that guy is wrong is just proof he’s extra right?

              You’re bad at this.

              1. Blacklisting means the numbers of scholars on each side is meaningless.

                I’m sure lots of scholars found occasion to praise Soviet economic models inside the USSR, too. And very few critics. Does that prove the superiority of the Soviet model?

                Counting scholars only provides information when there are no strong incentives to produce one conclusion or the other.

        2. Not blacklisting, Ben. Just saying that there are other scholars who have studied the issue who come to different conclusions.

          1. The “other scholar” you linked to, first thing that comes up for him is director of some global think tank / advocacy organization.

            Did you actually read the article that you linked? He basically admits he can’t prove what effect the influx of immigration in the Mariel case study had on wages. Then he pokes small holes in Borjas’ reasoning, of the type that can be made with any social science: the observed correlation may not be causal, the sample might not be representative etc. One of his arguments is that you should control for black people because they would make lower wages anyway because of systemic racism.

            Based on these holes, he concludes: “There is no clear evidence that wages fell (or that unemployment rose) among the least-skilled workers in Miami, even after a sudden refugee wave sharply raised the size of that workforce”.

            A very narrowly drawn conclusion, and defensible perhaps for some definitions of “clear evidence.” But it’s limited to the Mariel case study and picking apart Borjas’ interpretation of it, and is of limited applicability to the broader question.

            And then, you’ll notice that some propagandists at Vox slapped a headline on the piece that isn’t supported by the article. That’s perhaps the most salient point of all.

            1. OK.

              What I should have said is that I doubt the effect is as big or as much in one direction as Borjas says, and that in any case looking at annual changes is deceptive, since the impact of immigration is a long-term process.

              The thing is, Borjas’ findings and anything remotely similar would be “controversial” regardless of the strength and quantity of the evidence and studies, because people don’t want it to be true due to the policy implications.

              And some people would support Borjas’ findings regardless of how shoddy the work was. But what makes it controversial is that there are serious arguments that he’s wrong. Did you read the article I linked?

            2. So you criticize the article based on the author’s job?

              In fact, it heavily cites work by David Card – a very distinguished labor economist – later confirmed by Peri and Yasenov , which pretty much refutes Borjas’ results. Note that Borjas’ conclusions are based on a carefully chosen sample that includes only 17 workers/yr. As the article, that’s pretty noisy, plus you can always find some subset that meets some condition if you look hard enough.

              Then he pokes small holes in Borjas’ reasoning, of the type that can be made with any social science:

              They are not small. Maybe you don’t understand them.

              it’s limited to the Mariel case study and picking apart Borjas’ interpretation of it, and is of limited applicability to the broader question.

              Well, it maybe suggests that Borjas is eager to interpret data to match his ideas. Lots of people are, of course, so it’s important to look at the actual work carefully, rather than blithely quot efigures like $500B/yr.

              And then, you’ll notice that some propagandists at Vox slapped a headline on the piece that isn’t supported by the article. That’s perhaps the most salient point of all.

              No. It’s not relevant at all that some copy editor chose a slightly inaccurate headline.

  8. I’m not hostile to Ilya’s point, in fact I agree with him. But his argument makes a fundamental assumption (which I’d accept) that’s unlikely to be shared by his critics (or even many who agree with his conclusion).

    That assumption is assuming there are ‘great people’ – individuals who achieve great things and move forward our society’s accomplishments through genius and hard work (whether knowledge, business success, etc…). Potential great people are out there, and by excluding them, we deny ourselves the benefit of them realizing their greatness.

    Many democrats don’t believe in the ‘great person’ theory. This is Obama’s “you didn’t build that” argument. They believe that who achieves greatness (or credit for greatness) is essentially random, and that the achievement properly belongs to society as a whole – that success becomes inevitable given its social circumstances, and the person who achieved that success could have been anyone.

    Republicans, historically, would have accepted a great person theory of achievement. But the nationalism populist version of the Republicans are either inconsistent in whether they espouse it, or have rejected it. (Some minority of them likely subscribe to the great person theory, but are racist, and believe you could capture all the great people just by letting in Europeans – but I find it unlikely that a majority of Trump’s populist Republicans are racist, much less that overtly racist).

    As such, this post feels like preaching to the choir. It makes assumptions that render the argument meaningless – because everyone who agrees with the assumption is already persuaded.

    1. That assumption is assuming there are ‘great people’ – individuals who achieve great things and move forward our society’s accomplishments through genius and hard work (whether knowledge, business success, etc…). Potential great people are out there, and by excluding them, we deny ourselves the benefit of them realizing their greatness.

      Many democrats don’t believe in the ‘great person’ theory.

      I don’t think Ilya is primarily advancing the great person theory in the sense that we may be excluding the next Newton or Salk (whose mother and paternal grandparents, Wikipedia tells us, were immigrants). He’s more pushing the idea that we exclude a lot of talented people who can contribute in lesser but still significant ways.

      1. Right, but he still focuses on individual achievement. ‘Great people’ as a theory isn’t just about the Newtons of the world.

        Obama’s “you didn’t build that” argument was directed at all levels of achievement. It’s a recent example of a very Hegelian line of thought that individuals don’t matter – there’s an arc of history, and the people who happen to be significant in it are random and replaceable.

        1. Oh come on. You can make the same argument about talented cohorts within a larger population.

          1. The whole point of the Hegelian argument is that individuals aren’t important. The “you didn’t build that” argument concludes that success happens “because we do things together”. Obama means society as a whole here. The bedrock assumption of that argument is that individuals don’t matter – someone else would have done it (or something like it) if you didn’t, because society as a whole has created the context in which something like it was inevitable.

            (This should all sound familiar to anyone who’s read Hegel – the inevitable arc of history.)

            Once you start from the Hegelian assumptions, there’s no such thing as talent – if you don’t let immigrants in, some local person will be in position to accomplish the same thing instead. To this Hegelian, society-is-the-root-of-everything perspective, immigrants are literally stealing opportunities, because those opportunities aren’t created, they’re inevitable.

            To me, they’re obviously wrong. I believe in a ‘great person’ understanding of history and events. But you’re not going to convince the Hegelians by assuming it, you have to instead defend that individual greatness is a thing. The value of immigrants necessarily follows.

            1. Well, I have not read Hegel, I admit.

              To this Hegelian, society-is-the-root-of-everything perspective, immigrants are literally stealing opportunities, because those opportunities aren’t created, they’re inevitable.

              But wouldn’t the “arc of history” argument take into account the size of populations, and the structure of societies? So if you move more people into a more favorable environment there are more opportunities for more people.

              So the immigrants aren’t “stealing opportunities,” because the number of opportunities is not fixed. I f you have ten restaurants in a city of 10,000, and 1000 people move in, and one opens a new restaurant, the new restaurateur isn’t stealing anyone’s opportunity.

              1. As I am not a Hegelian, I’m not confident in what the response would be here. But my guess is that they’d argue population size is roughly inevitable, and immigrants reduce birth rates, or something like that (at least if they were being consistent).

                Also, most people aren’t philosophers and haven’t thought through their beliefs in that much detail. Failure to be consistent at that level by most adherents is probably to be expected. Heck, most of them probably don’t even understand their beliefs are Hegelian. (The argument is Hegelian in nature, but I don’t remember reading Hegel arguing against immigration per se, so the description is relative to the nature of the argument, not the specifics of the claims).

  9. Professor Somin…I get what you are saying. In normal times, I would agree with you more than I disagree. We do need a massive influx of immigrants to this country: doctors, biologists, physicists, mathmeticians, chemists, and people who have something to contribute. Lawyers and landscapers…not so much.

    POTUS Trump is right when he says that an American Green Card is highly desirable. It is. We can and should be very choosy who we let in. But I am all for letting in millions of self-supporting immigrants with advanced skills that we need to build the America of tomorrow.

    But we are not living in normal times, are we?

    1. If you’re talking about COVID, that doesn’t make a lot of sense – we allow travel with screening/quarantine, and this is exactly the same level of risk.

      1. Sarcastr0….When the UI rate falls below 5%, and people who left the workforce start coming back into the economy because there are more openings than people to fill them, then it is time to talk large scale immigration. Not now.

        Look, I want immigration. A lot of it. But we can and must be strategic about who we allow in. We are competing with the EU and Asia for talented people. The Green Card is a very strong incentive; we should use that to serve our national interest. That is not wrong.

        To build the America of tomorrow, we need people who have different skill sets than the people who came here and helped build the America we have today. This is a serious and thoughtful policy discussion America needs to have.

        1. Our immigration system is a tangled complicated thing, it is hardly strategic, but it’s also anything but profligate nor has it been for decades.

          How many immigrant entrepreneurs have you met? Lots, I’d guess. Indeed, just about every economist but one finds that immigration remains a huge net gain for our economy, not just due to diverse skills but also due to their labor and small businesses.

          1. You’d be right = How many immigrant entrepreneurs have you met? Lots, I’d guess.

    2. I am a doctor.
      I am against letting in a lot of foreign doctors.
      That would lower the wages of American born doctors.

      1. If we presume that your alleged causality is actually true…

        Surprisingly, people making more money than they deserve don’t typically want to make less money.

        In tomorrow’s news, water is determined to be wet.

  10. Thank you for the occasional libertarian content, Prof. Somin.

    It is unfortunate that many of the American communities that could most benefit from the attributes immigrants can provide — entrepreneurship, ambition, education, drive, tolerance, optimism, — are especially insular and hostile toward immigrants.

    1. Thieves, not immigrants.

      1. The comments at the Volokh Conspiracy reliably demonstrate why it has been so important for better Americans to win the American culture war and shape our national progress against the wishes and efforts of conservatives throughout our lifetimes.

        Carry on, clingers. But only so far and so long as your betters permit, as usual.

        1. Two words: Operation Wetback….

  11. Ahh yes, the standard argument that goes: Because many scientific and technological advantages came from educated immigrants from Europe and Asia, it’s in America’s best interest to import as many uneducated immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East as possible.

    1. Actually, a huge number of American achievements in all fields came from the many millions of immigrants who arrived around the turn of the 20th century and their children.

      A large percentage of these people were uneducated.

      1. Did they have IQs a full standard deviation below the white mean?

        1. You’re saying *all* “uneducated” immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East have IQs a full standard deviation below the ‘white mean’? I mean, even given your obviously racist assumptions (what is a ‘white mean’ and why is it even relevant – race isn’t real – it’s a social construct, and ‘white’ isn’t even an actual race), that proposition is clearly false on-face.

          And being uneducated doesn’t mean unintelligent. Political situations likely have more to do with lack of education than anything else. (Considering Arabia was experiencing a golden age of math and science while Europe was in the dark ages – from whom we got our current numerals, the number zero, and the basis of modern chemistry, etc… it hardly seems like focusing only on one slice of time is a good way to assess intellectual capabilities. If you’d asked in 1000 AD, Baghdad would likely have scoffed at the IQs of Europeans).

          (Note: longest backlog of immigrant applications last I was aware was India. Not exactly a country lacking in intellectuals or educated people).

          1. No, I’m not saying that. I’m talking about averages, and the numbers don’t lie.

          2. Perhaps you’re new here:

            Aktenberg’s sole purpose in life is to spread his racist views, and complain about homosexuality (specifically males) because of his self-loathing.

  12. Libertarian to english translation follows:

    You stupid rube. Open borders means cheaper stuff for you. You are so stupid you can’t see this despite me putting it into a very long blog post in easy to read English. You like tacos right? Well we have those because of immigration. Same with chinese food? Immigration. No Taco Bell or Great Wok without that. So eat enjoy your ethnic food and sit down and shut up. Yeah you might make less money as unskilled labor drives down wages, but you can buy more cheap stuff at Walmart! What don’t you get! Stupid rube just do what I tell you to do.

  13. I bet those Hawaiians sure are glad they let in all those immigrants.
    The ones building telescopes on their sacred sites. And the Hawaiians have no say in the matter.
    Those Tibetans are certainly enjoying the diversity of millions of Han Chinese immigrating into their country.
    Especially as the Han don’t follow the cultural value of venerating the Dalai Lama.
    The Swedes are certainly enjoying the grenade attacks of the many moslem immigrants.
    Who don’t share the high trust, low violence of Swedish culture.
    Should I go on and on about letting in so many who don’t share your culture and the negative effects it causes?
    Just cause poor immigrants drive up rents and buy fast food is not a reason to let millions of them in.
    Even if a few build a better atom bomb or start a successful company.

  14. In an economically free country, the more, the better, as faster invention and progress happens, sans government rationing or command and control.

    But the non-libertarians in charge of this mass immigration aren’t in it for that reason, nor because America is the shining city in the hill, compared to these many countries, as evidenced by the masses trying to get here.

    No, they want to roll the domestic electorate so they can skyrocket regulation and control, killing the free economy part of that equation.

    In short, I’d be happier they were doing the right thing, for the wrong reason, if the wrong reason wasn’t to destroy why immigration is such a benefit.

  15. LEGAL immigrants who arrive here through proper channels, and do not bring with them baggage in the form of criminal records or trade or professional discipline, are most certainly welcome. Anyone else, not so much. In fact, not at all.
    Leave exercises in conflation to the popular press, please.

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