Economics, Egalitarianism and Immigration

Economist Tyler Cowen has an interesting New York Times column on the egalitarianism underpinning economic analysis and its implications for immigration policy:

Economic analysis is itself value-free, but in practice it encourages a cosmopolitan interest in natural equality…. The crucial implication is this: If you treat all individuals as fundamentally the same in your theoretical constructs, it would be odd to insist that the law should suddenly start treating them differently….

Often, economists spend their energies squabbling with one another, but arguably the more important contrast is between our broadly liberal economic worldview and the various alternatives — common around the globe — that postulate natural hierarchies of religion, ethnicity, caste and gender, often enforced by law and strict custom….
So where will a cosmopolitan perspective take us today?

One enormous issue is international migration. A distressingly large portion of the debate in many countries analyzes the effects of higher immigration on domestic citizens alone and seeks to restrict immigration to protect a national culture or existing economic interests. The obvious but too-often-underemphasized reality is that immigration is a significant gain for most people who move to a new country.

Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, quantified these gains in a 2011 paper, “Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?” He found that unrestricted immigration could create tens of trillions of dollars in economic value, as captured by the migrants themselves in the form of higher wages in their new countries and by those who hire the migrants or consume the products of their labor. For a profession concerned with precision, it is remarkable how infrequently we economists talk about those rather large numbers.

As Tyler argues, it is wrong to ignore the welfare of potential migrants when making immigration policy. I offer additional reasons why this is so and address some possible counterarguments here and here.

To say that immigrants’ rights and interests should not be ignored in debates over immigration policy is not to say that we should have completely free migration in all conceivable circumstances. There are potential situations where the harms caused by international migration are great enough to outweigh the benefits. But, as Tyler emphasizes, the truly enormous benefits are large enough that that harms sufficient to justify immigration restrictions must also be enormously large. Those benefits are not merely increased pay for migrants and increased productivity for the world economy, although both of the latter are potentially enormous. In many cases, allowing an immigrant to escape the Third World and enter a liberal democracy means saving him and his descendants from a lives of poverty and oppression. For many, particularly natives of nondemocratic nations, international migration is also their only means of exercising political freedom.

Moreover, some potential negative effects of immigration can be eliminated or minimized by measures less draconian than keeping would-be migrants out. For example, Tyler mentions the problems caused by immigrants who consume excessive welfare benefits. But that danger – where it exists – can be mitigated by denying welfare benefits to migrants, imposing additional taxes on them to pay for the public services they consume, or some combination of both. Similarly, there are many ways to control the potential “political externalities” immigration might cause. Tyler’s George Mason Economics Department colleague Bryan Caplan has an excellent article laying out many ways that possible negative side-effects of immigration can be alleviated without banning immigration itself.

Before they decide to keep out migrants, governments have a moral obligation to consider 1) whether the benefits of immigration – including those to immigrants themselves – are really outweighed by the harms, and 2) whether those harms can be mitigated by means other than denying migration rights. On rare occasions, the answers to both questions will indeed be “yes.” John McGinnis and I note one such possibility in this article (pp. 1792-93). But any fair-minded calculation of costs and benefits that takes migrants’ interests into account is likely to find that the vast majority of today’s migration restrictions can’t possibly be justified. That is likely to be true even if the analysis “discounts” their interests relative to those of natives by a substantial factor. The benefits of moving from the Third World to the First World are so enormous that they remain large even if you arbitrarily reduce them five or tenfold.