You are currently viewing Bryan Caplan’s Open Borders book: considerations

Bryan Caplan’s Open Borders book: considerations

Not intended as a proper book review. I didn’t read this book yet.

Back in 2019, Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith published a serious comic book Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. It does what it says, argues mostly without left-wing shame tactics for the billion dollar bills on the street. Well, I heavily disagree with the conclusion. Open borders would destroy western civilization as we know it, and as it is already doing to some degree. We’ve tried this stuff before even in recent times.

I think the book deserves a comprehensive reply, but it seems no one has bothered to do this. I think a comprehensive reply can only really come from an explicit hereditarian perspective. The benefits of immigration to a country’s citizens depends on the long-term impact of them, thus their children and grandchildren. How well these can be expected to do is a matter of debate, but we have now several decades of data in Europe from the largely Muslim immigration experiment beginning in the 1960s or so (‘guest’ workers). Some prior posts on related topics:

Some HBD-aware reviews or comments:

Nevertheless, it is not specific to this book. To derive the pro-immigration policies, they mostly depend on various universalism moral claims, which one can simply reject. But not all of their claims. For instance, on page 41, they write/draw:

The goal here is to attack the so-called arithmetic fallacy. I mean, OK. But if we reject their moral universalism, they are still assuming the average native income goes up from the importation of below average foreigners (50k to 60k). This is just plainly false. To be very broad and brief, the functioning of a country depends mainly on the average quality of the citizens. When one admits below average people, the average citizen quality decreases and thus the country functioning in the long term. Quality here refers to some composite of intelligence, psychopathology, work ethic, honesty and other human capital traits, you can make your own judgment call about their relative importance.

One way to show this kind of thing is to look for evidence of non-compositional effects. Suppose we important immigrants with IQ at 90, and natives are at 100. If we import enough so they comprise 10% of the population, the new country IQ is then 99 instead of 100, and the country will suffer slightly in various ways. However, it is possible the IQ of the natives is affected by the immigrants too, causing a further decline. This is a non-compositional effect. It is hard to say how large such effects might be, but probably not their existence. I took a quick look to pick two examples from Denmark. Let’s begin with a cultural example:

the objective was to test the hypothesis that a higher proportion of students with non-Western origin in high school classes is associated with lower and less frequent alcohol consumption among ethnic Danish students.
data on country of origin was obtained from the Danish Civil Registration System, while information on drinking habits were derived from the Danish National Youth Study 2014. Multilevel zero-inflated binominal regression was used to assess the association between class proportion of students with non-Western origin and odds of non-drinking and mean weekly alcohol consumption, while multilevel logistic regression was used to assess the association with frequent binge drinking.
a higher proportion of students with non-Western origin in class was associated with higher odds of non-drinking among ethnic Danish student in the same class. For example, ethnic Danish boys in classes with more than 15% of the students of non-Western origin had 77% higher odds of being non-drinkers, compared to ethnic Danish boys in classes where 0–5% had non-Western origin (OR: 1.77, 95% CI; 1.42–2.20). Among ethnic Danish students that did consume alcohol, class proportion of students with non-Western origin was not associated with weekly alcohol consumption, while a higher proportion of students with non-Western origin in class was associated with lower odds of frequent binge drinking.
the downward drinking trend among adolescents in Western countries may be partly explained by the higher proportion of youth with non-Western origin, influencing the prevalence of drinking and frequency of binge drinking among adolescents in the ethnic majority population.

[Here we are just going to ignore the statistical difficulties of estimating non-compositional effects due to self-selection of students in schools.] So, if you like me, like the Danish alcohol culture, this is a negative culture effect. One will no doubt find more such effects in recent times as teachers and universities are explicitly trying to accommodate Muslims by discouraging or removing Danish drinking traditions from events. The most discussed example is the introduction week at Danish universities, which is basically a week of team sports with lots of alcohol that helps relatively introverted Danes get to know their new classmates (e.g. 2007, 2013, 2017). OK, let’s get more serious:

Immigrant students in Denmark on average perform worse in lower secondary school than native Danish students. Part of the effect may not stem from the immigrant students themselves, but from the student composition at the school. From a policy perspective, the latter aspect is quite interesting since it is more feasible to change student composition in schools than the socioeconomic status of the individual students. This article describes theoretically the circumstances under which total student achievement can be increased by reallocating certain groups of students. Empirical analyses of Danish register data of more than 40,000 students suggest that the gain in total student achievement by reallocating immigrant students is minor. The educational outcome of immigrant students can however, ceteris paribus, be increased, at minimal expense to the majority of native Danish students’ educational outcome, by limiting the share of immigrant students at grade level at any one school to less than 50 percent. The policy implications of this finding are discussed.

We quote from their findings:

To estimate the average effect of immigrant concentration for all students in Table 1, we start by adding control variables such as individual characteristics and gradually include other control variables to find out how it affects the magnitude and significance of the explanatory variable.When only immigrant concentration is included in the analysis, the estimate for the explanatory variable is -0.017 and significant at the 0.01 level (model 1). Controlling for each student’s individual characteristics, family background and school characteristics, however, changes the estimate for immigrant concentration to -0.004. The effect is still significant at the 0.01 level (model 4). Significance and direction of the estimates of the control variables are as expected. Model 4 shows a positive and significant relationship between family characteristics such as parental education, parental capital, parental income and the dependent variable. Children of parents with a high education and high income on average perform better. Furthermore, gender, ethnicity and age have a significant effect on the students’ educational outcome. As previous studies have shown, girls on average perform significantly better than boys and second-generation immigrants perform significantly better than first-generation immigrants. Especially when family background is included, the magnitude of the effect of immigrant concentration decreases substantially and raises the explanatory power of the model. Other Scandinavian studies show that a large proportion of the variation in students’ educational outcome is due to differences in family background (Jensen & Würtz 2008; Szulkin & Jonsson 2007). In sum, the results in Table 1 show that the average effect of immigrant concentration on students’ educational outcome is negative and significant in the Danish lower secondary school. The average peer group effect is relatively weak in magnitude, given that moving a student from a grade with 0 percent immigrant students to a grade with 100 percent immigrant students decreases the student’s grade by 0.4 points on average on a scale from 0 to 13 with a standard deviation of 1.29 (see Appendix Table A).

[Again, we ignore the problems in estimation and just accept their value]. So changing a school (Gymnasium, high school) from 100% to ~0% Danish will reduce grades of Danes by about 0.31 standard deviation. Not a very big effect. We don’t expect anything else because we already know that school factors are not generally important (see also this). In this case, we can interpret it as an acting-Danish/acting-immigrant effect. The behavioral norms change when the school composition changes so that the minority will change their behaviors towards that of the majority group (drink more/less above when more Danes/immigrants), or here, whatever behaviors underlie grades, such as homework compliance and effort. Nevertheless, the effect seems to be present for some outcomes. I note that this Dutch study used standardized test scores and found no effect at any quantile. I would in general think that intelligence probably cannot be at all affected by this, but softer behaviors such as stealing, honesty in general, homework, work ethic are somewhat effected by this.

Still, these studies are looking for nice continuous effects. I think the largest non-compositional effects are likely to be due to policy changes that accommodate the lowest common denominator by lowering standards for everybody. Linda Gottfredson (all publications!) provides a lengthy example of how recruitment testing in the police are reduced or removed to increase the proportion of non-Europeans:

Discrimination law and its aggressive enforcement by the U.S. Department of Justice both falsely assume that all racial-ethnic groups would pass job-related, unbiased employment tests at the same rate. Unreasonable law and enforcement create pressure for personnel psychologists to violate professional principles and lower the merit relatedness of tests in the service of race-based goals. This article illustrates such a case by describing how the content of a police entrance examination in Nassau County, New York, was stripped of crucial cognitive demands to change the racial composition of the applicants who seemed most qualified. The test was thereby rendered nearly worthless for actually making such determinations. The article concludes by examining the implications of the case for policing in Nassau County,Congressional oversight of Justice Department activities, and psychology’s role in helping its members to avoid such coercion.

So, in attempt to hire some more non-Europeans, the overall quality of the police force is lowered, so now everybody has to deal with more police violence, more crime due to incompetence, mistaken arrests, corruption and so on. These kind of policy changes are abrupt and don’t result from any specific non-European%. One can find many such cases in other areas of life, whether doctors, teachers, lawyers, or anything really. These kind of non-compositional effects will not be found in the typical empirical studies like above.

Next up, everybody a given country contributes in tax. The higher up you are on the income ladder, the more you got to pay relatively (progressive tax system). So if a country admits a bunch of low income people, you will now be relatively higher up the ladder at the same absolute income, and since these newcomers are economically net negative (see also this really nice Dutch study), the state has to get some money somehow, i.e., you pay more. So in this approach, your post-tax income is reduced.

Further, as Caplan likes to argue, the income a given person has is largely dependent on the area he’s in, specifically, which government he lives under (magic dirt institutions). So if we move people from countries with bad institutions to those with good ones, incomes go up and no one loses anything. Great! Free money! However, governments are people too, so if you keep importing below average people, the governments will fall in quality too, it just takes a while. Government institutions are not scale-free, they need staffing somewhat as a function of how many people they serve. Eventually, the original population will not have a sufficient number of smart people to staff them to a given level of competence for the growing population count, and they need to resort to recruitment of the immigrants, lowering the quality of the staff and thus the institution. In the end, the result is that your income will suffer too from importing below average people. Of course, this is all assuming government will not immediately implement some diversity hiring program but stick to meritocracy. If they implement some diversity hiring problem, the fall in institutional quality will be much faster.

Crime is another area where the effects are obvious: importing above average criminal propensity people will increase your own rate of victimization. This effect is small due to high rate of intra-group criminality, but not zero. Jonatan provides some European numbers in his review, but anyone can read the Color of Crime report and look at the inter-racial numbers. The Hispanics are a recent immigrant group, their above white crime rate is contributing towards higher European victimization rates. One can convert this to economics too because one can estimate the cost of crimes.

I thought my various points above were fairly obvious to the critical reader of the Open Borders book, but it seems I am greatly mistaken. I had a long chat with a friend about these matters, and he was unexpected convinced by the economic arguments, which I thought were very silly.

Now, if we are really mean, we could go on to point out that even above average immigration can be net negative. This depends on the various non-compositional effects described above. Such persons will improve the economy, but they might hurt your national cohesion, reduce trust etc. If such people have loyalty to another country or group, they will likely spy on you, which could be very costly in some cases.