The Open Borders Impasse and the Art of Persuasion


A recent debate, hosted by Intelligence Squared, promised an opportunity for “balanced, civil dialogue” and “an antidote to the unedifying partisanship so pervasive in politics and media today.” Given the motion at hand — “let anyone take a job anywhere” — and the presence of Bryan Caplan, an economist I hold in high regard, I was eager to observe.

While the debate proved dysfunctional and messy, to say the least, it merits one’s attention for two important reasons:

  • The disjointed, confused arguments — and the participants ignoring and talking past each other — reflected the broader stalemate on immigration reform.
  • The most economically rigorous and concise engagement by far, from Caplan, appeared to be powerless. Not only did he not sway attendees, they overwhelmingly shifted against the idea and his presentation.

In their remarks, both Caplan and his colleague, Vivek Wadhwa of Singularity University, wondered why the debate was even necessary. Wadhwa quipped that the US Congress can’t even pass a budget and keep the government running; how on earth are they going to plan and select immigration flows at the individual level?

They asserted enormous benefits from open labor movement, including a doubling of world economic output and higher wages by a factor of 20 for many people. Further, they noted that in the digital realm, labor is already borderless. Just as the PanAm Post hires contributors throughout the continent, so too do many other people, and they achieve much greater gains from trade.

Ironically, those opposed to the motion didn’t even refute these claims. Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute and Ron Unz, former publisher of The American Conservative, agreed that free movement would generate greater growth, and they agreed that confining poor people to their native countries was discriminatory and imposed limited opportunities.

Bryan Caplan, economics professor, George Mason University, senior fellow, Mercatus Center. Source: Intelligence Squared.

And it appeared to work. To my astonishment, the first thing Unz said was that he had zero training in economics and had never opened an economics text book; yet he proceeded to try to school Caplan, a widely published professor, on supply and demand and capital and labor (listen to the clip below — 30 seconds). He even began to pull statistics out of nowhere, that 90 percent of natives would lose from open labor movement.

I got the sense Caplan could hardly believe the mess of reasoning and fabrications he had found himself in, as his head swayed side to side. All three of the other participants even got stuck on asserting that the minimum wage would have to be higher, so as to “protect” US workers. The only bright spot from that lunacy may have been the open admission that this was in the interests of union-style workers — that such a wage was against the interests of low-skilled and new entrants into the labor market.

Unz and his fellow opponent proceeded to flame the fears of “they’re taking our jobs” and “we can’t integrate that many people!” Despite glaring and positive counterexamples of free movement, such as the European Union and Puerto Rico with the United States, these two individuals did not budge.

Caplan noted that even the most anti-immigration economists consider the negative impact on domestic labor to be minimal, between 3 and 0 percent of wages (PDF, p.8). Still, this data just bounced right off Unz and Newland, as they called for “fair and reasonable” management of labor.

One could go on with the confusion that transpired, including the repeated assertion that the United States is open to immigrants, even as Canada has almost twice the net-migration rate. Regardless, the results came out overwhelmingly in favor of the opponents of free movement of labor. As pictured, they (in red) increased their share of the audience from 21 to 49 percent, while the proponents’ proportion fell from 46 to 42 percent.

Source: Intelligence Squared.

This predicament suggests advocates for open borders have a lot to learn about how to appeal to an audience. In fact, I get the sense that the closed border policy rests upon so many nativist assumptions and instincts that to go right after it, even in a refined manner, may be an impossible battle.

Consider the assertion, from Caplan, that barring foreigners is discrimination against fellow human beings, akin to a union or tribe that prohibits Jews, females, or any other individuals we might sympathize with. The audience hardly raised an eyebrow, and Newland simply responded that nations are supposed to discriminate. Evidently, from Orwell, “All [humans] are equal, but some [humans] are more equal than others” — those with union membership, that is.

Similarly, an attendee asked, wouldn’t we be obliged to provide taxpayer-funded education and other entitlements to new arrivals and their family members? One could easily say no, as should be the case with people already here, but so strong is the prevailing entitlement mentality that to challenge this would have opened a whole new can of worms and further isolated one from the audience.

Given these prevailing assumptions about citizenship and loyalties, one can see why people look the other way at the suffering of those across an arbitrary line. Apparently, just not seeing it makes it okay, and that blissful ignorance would be undermined if such people were able to come here freely.

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