Contrarian economics professor Bryan Caplan and famed cartoonist Zach Weinersmith have teamed up to write the new non-fiction graphic novel Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. The book argues that truly free migration would transform the world for the better - and the many complaints about immigration are wrong or greatly overstated.
Ask us anything!
Becker wanted to sell (his number was around $50k) work visas and/or citizenship, do you think we should focus on trying to pass something like that on top of our current system rather than just trying to expand the current migration quotas? This would also be cheaper than the current investor system in place.
No strong view, but I suspect it's a lot easier to raise quotas than implement new systems. If we could get an unlimited $50k work visa, though, I think that would take us halfway to open borders, because credit markets would figure out lots of ways to loan people the money. It's only a few years wages even for minimum wage workers, after all.
In "Why I Am Not an Austrian" you criticize Murray Rothbard's perspective when he states that any supply of money is "optimal" in a free market, despite saying in America's Great Depression that wages can be rigid downward in a free market and thus "the quantity of money could affect employment given wage rigidity."
Would you consider your position on deflation and monetary theory to be similar to George Selgin and Steve Horwitz's? In other words, do you find free banking to be an optimal monetary regime given the tendency for monetary disequilibrium?
Is this the answer to the gaping hole in Austrian monetary theory?
I've got a much more psychological story than most Austrians. And I'm convinced by Keynesian macroeconomists who say that it's best to have inflation of 2-4% to counteract humans' resentment of nominal wage cuts. I'd like to think that free banking would deliver this, but don't know of any evidence that it would.
Thank you for your time. In the introduction of your book The Myth of the Rational Voter, you give advice to your fellow economists to write more books and less articles on the grounds of conveying more complete ideas to the reader instead of a piecemeal approach in a shorter work that may miss certain nuances of a given topic. I have attempted to do this in my new book on economics I just published.
My question to you is, what can the informed layperson, student, or non-expert do to propose original ideas or quality research to the economics field? is higher education and peer reviewed papers the only route?
Step 1: Profile promising researchers and become their friends. Step 2: Nudge them.
This is easier than it sounds because so many researchers are so bored and lonely.
In your book, you frequently extrapolate (e.g., on crime, politics) from current immigrants to the U.S., despite that this immigrant mix of mildly selected Hispanics and highly selected Asians is extremely unrepresentative of the mix of unselected Blacks, South Asians, Latinos, and Chinese that would come to the U.S. under open borders. What is your justification for this?
In your book, you estimate open borders would double world GDP. The rise of China only just over doubled China's GDP in the first decade of the 21st century, and even this rise resulted in an explosion of commodities prices. What is the best way for developed country natives to be insulated from this rise in commodities prices under open borders?
In your book, you estimate open borders would double GDP. Developed countries currently constitute about 40% of world GDP. Thus, doubling world GDP would require at least a quadrupling of the population of the developed countries, with this skyrocketing population being skewed towards the United States. Does this massive population growth pose any substantial difficulties for your argument (on the basis of current American trends) immigrants will rapidly assimilate into developed country society?
Last, and most importantly, do you support the Palestinian right of return to their ancestral homelands?
Is gold money?
A good finance textbook will tell you that "money" is not binary. Rather there is a continuum of "moneyness" that every asset has. Gold used to be near the extreme money end of the continuum, but has become much less so over time.
The format works well - what are the chances that we'll see more in this style from you?
Pretty good. I'm thinking of doing another non-fiction graphic novel on housing deregulation, titled Build, Baby, Build: A YIMBY Manifesto. I also have dozens of fictional graphic novels plotted in my head. If I went that route, I'd probably start with my dystopian story Control Group, about a psychiatric despotism inspired by BF Skinner's Walden 2.
Supposing that global migration levels substantially increase and we realize the profound productivity gains, how do we deal with the unpriced external costs of increased consumption? Is the solution simply carbon taxes?
Someone mentioned some concern about commodity prices spiking, so I guess this is about the opposite problem.
You could both be right. Open borders could cause both commodity price spikes and much higher pollution.
My main reaction: Unless you think that economic progress in the Third World is, on balance, a bad thing, open borders just fast forwards to the long-run prosperity of the world. And according to most environmental economists, economic growth only temporarily makes pollution worse. Once people are rich enough, they start cleaning up their act. (See the "environmental Kuznets curve" for more).
Solutions? Never mind carbon taxes; simply cutting widespread global subsidies for fossil fuels would be a huge step forward.
Do you think only one country implementing open borders would have any perverse incentives for its neighbours?
And is there any country you consider to have a nearly "ideal" immigration policy consistent with your support of open borders?
Finally, is there a relationship between free trade and open borders? Do you think they must go together, not necessarily, or some other option?
Nothing notable. By the standard gravity model of trade, I'd say that nearby countries gain more than faraway countries, though not as much as the receiving countries themselves.
The U.S., Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Australia, and (if memory serves) NZ were all very good in the late 19th-century. Today, the best countries are the Gulf monarchies, despite all their official cruelties toward migrant workers.
The main thing I'd say is that since services dominate modern economies, free trade with heavy migration regulation effectively means that only 30% of your economy is open to trade. They don't have to go together, but they tend to.
Did you change your mind on anything during the course of writing or doing research for this book?
Lots. I didn't know the National Academy of Sciences estimates for net fiscal effects of immigration, so all that data work was new to me.
I came up with my method for putting a lower bound of the causal effect of Third World environment on IQ while writing the book.
My critique of the ancestry/Deep Roots literature happened while writing the book, with the help of Nathaniel Bechhofer.
Thanks for writing was an amazing and informative book! It was so odd to see a cartoonist I follow and an economist (from two seemingly unrelated sections of my RSS feed) connect and write a book together!
My question (bearing in mind I am fully supportive of Open Borders personally) is given how in many cities in the developed world strict housing regulation has resulted in extremely high house prices, wouldn't the influx of new immigrants make the situation a lot worse by increasing demand for housing whilst supply stays the same?
I know the answer is deregulating housing, but given the dim prospects for that and how important people view housing as being what should be the response of a committed pro-Open Borders person to someone who brings up 'rising rents' as a negative externality of increased immigration?
Thanks and here's hoping you both find another project to work on together (and here's looking forward to reading the book on poverty whenever it comes out)!
Great question. Strict across-the-board housing regulation would make open borders almost useless. But fortunately, housing regulation varies tremendously. NYC and SF have awful policies, but Texas and Florida are much better. Under open borders, the parts of the country that allow easy construction would get most of the migrants and most of the gains.
So, when's the sequel on zoning?
I'm going on a social media diet in 2020 for election year. Maybe I'll write it during all the time I save...
Congratulations on (most likely) winning your bet that no major country would leave the EU before 2020! I have to say I was sure you would lose. Hats off!
Do you have any major geopolitical predictions for the next year/few years?
Given an open borders policy is unrealistic in the current political climate, what politically palatable immigration policies do you think would have the most positive impact? Aside from changing sheer immigration numbers, what other reform could be done?
Apologies if your book answers any of these questions!
Thanks on the bet! I have quite a few more bets on the table, and the only one I'd like to retract is my long-run warming bet with Yoram Baumann. Feasible reforms? The DREAM Act, using the full refugee quotas, and maybe a simpler system for high-skilled immigration.
Bryan, you believe investment in education should be reduced in US and immigration into US should be increased. What combined effect would you see of these put together ?
Also, how does Tyler Cowen find and hire the most unique thinkers across country ? And how did you guys miss out on Steve Levitt.
The big combined effect is that the net fiscal effect of immigration would be MUCH higher if education spending were lower. Public school is very expensive, and happens early in life. If such spending were markedly lower, immigration would be a much bigger gain for native taxpayers.
Tyler finds and hires unique new thinkers largely by reading hundreds of job market papers, even in years we're not hiring. We usually discover more established thinkers by social media and word of mouth.
Steve Levitt? He was already famous before GMU started expanding in the late 90s.
Dr. Caplan - I am very sympathetic to your arguments but I feel that the tide is turning against liberalism generally and moving towards economic nationalism, both from the left and right. You've previously argued that short term trends are not indicative of long term changes.
Do you still hold this view, and do you think that economic nationalism is on the rise today? What can be done to slow it down?
The rhetorical tide has been turning since 2007. But I don't see that global policy has actual changed much. As I've said before, the public's ADHD keeps populist policy under control most of the time.
What can be done to slow it down? Being a friendly ambassador for the contrary view helps a little, but it's hard for any one person to make a big difference. Sad but true!
Hey Brian and Zach, thanks for doing the AMA. I've yet to get the book but will be ordering in the near future.
I have a question for both of you: What political party, or pressure groups would you recommend voting for/getting involved with to push forward the open border movement, and what are the best ways to advance it more generally?
My dear friend Fab Rojas runs the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Probably the best place to network on this, virtually and in real life.
Best way to advance it? Above all, be an ambassador for your views. Talk respectfully to everyone, and be a good listener. As Thumper says in Bambi, if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.
Expressing anger is emotionally satisfying, but holds back persuasion.
It seems like between your poverty book, education book, and immigration book all call for radical reforms that are unlikely to sway both the vast majority of the population and influencers. Why not attempt change on the margin? Why keep throwing up Hail Mary passes when you could gain a few yards?
Lots of other people work on marginal changes, so I don't think I have much to add there. Without me, though, the ideas that I care about often have no notable defender at all.
Furthermore, it's not clear that radical ideas either have a radical effect or no effect.
That said, my book with the biggest practical payoff has clearly been Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. I've got about 100 people who claim they've had an extra kid because of me. Using standard "value of life" measures, that's $1 billion of value!
Thanks for the AMA. These are mainly for Dr. Caplan!
I had the privilege to hear you speak at SMU last semester and I've been hooked ever since. Excited to read the new book once my finances are in order!
I really just wanted to say thanks for the book. Mine arrives on Saturday, but I've enjoyed your content in the past and as an unironic open borders shill I have a feeling I'll enjoy this as well.
If I had to ask a question I guess it would be "how does introducing this book to nationalists/immigration hawks tend to go?" I assume you've dealt with a lot of people who disagree initially and change their tune. I'm hoping I might be able to get my family into it since it's better for them than fox.
I don't know of any confirmed critics of immigration who have changed their minds. But I've influenced many moderate or undecided people. And I think the book will be persuasive to them, though of course changing anyone's mind on any important issue is like pulling teeth.
How do you see open borders actually happening? Treaties/political agreements like Schengen or unilateral opening of borders or something else?
Based on the last 70 years, treaties seem the most realistic route. Also guest worker programs.
What do you make of the observation, stated by Eric Kaufman’s in Whiteshift, that there is something like an Y% increase in populist backlash for X% of increased non-majority immigration? It seems that immigration policies seed their own demise if backlash grows as immigration increases; that we're basically already near the equilibrium of open borders and nativist backlash?
I'd start by asking for a definition of "backlash." If "backlash" means "You get more immigration by asking for less," it's a serious concern. If it just means "You get more people complaining about immigration as immigration goes up" it's not so serious.
I do wonder how the empirics can work when Poland and Hungary are the most populist countries in the EU and admit very few immigrants...
Dr. Caplan, do you find it easier to write a traditional book or a graphical book?
The graphic novel was vastly easier and more relaxing. I had zero writer's block on Open Borders, and got to use many more skills each day I worked on it. For regular books I something struggle to write a paragraph in a day.
Also, getting to work with a Five-Star guy like Zach is much more fun than typing alone in your office.
How much cultural conflict is calculated in the benefit of open borders? And if it has a net positive despite a large amout of problems, who will end up benefitting? How would you sell this to the large population who's culture undergoes forced change? Do you think this is ethical if this group was subsituted with any other? How do you perceive your personal life will change with the large influx of another culture? How deep of meaning do you think culture has to an individual? Do you believe the riches/tech/way of life the USA has attained are mostly ill gotten and also/or for a large part cultural (looking at EU heretige)? Answering the last question, do you believe people that don't have this way of living/thinking are quickly able to adapt (since adaptability to other culture over large populations is also a culturally learned thing)? Do you believe western culture so advanced that it can assimilate any amount of people without causing widespread conflict (which would come to a migrating cultures adaptability, and the ability of the native culture to adapt the other)? How would you see security? Would you mind if the other country doesn't have as strict security measures as your home country, since the borders are open?
Question by question.
How much cultural conflict is calculated in the benefit of open borders?
I see little evidence of a big effect, so I don't bother putting a price tag on it.
And if it has a net positive despite a large amout of problems, who will end up benefitting?
Almost everyone, I say. Comparable to the share of the population that has benefited from the Internet.
How would you sell this to the large population who's culture undergoes forced change? Do you think this is ethical if this group was subsituted with any other?
Here's what I think, though I wouldn't be good at selling it. https://www.econlib.org/you-have-no-right-to-your-culture/
How do you perceive your personal life will change with the large influx of another culture?
I'll have more choices. As usual, most won't interest me, but a few will. I'd much rather live here in multicultural Fairfax than in more monocultural parts of the U.S.
How deep of meaning do you think culture has to an individual?
Much less than people say. Actions speak louder than words. If people really cared deeply, far more natives would migrate away from high-immigration areas.
Do you believe the riches/tech/way of life the USA has attained are mostly ill gotten
and also/or for a large part cultural (looking at EU heretige)?
These things only emerged recently, so in one important sense they're entirely cultural. But that doesn't mean that it was just luck.
Answering the last question, do you believe people that don't have this way of living/thinking are quickly able to adapt (since adaptability to other culture over large populations is also a culturally learned thing)?
They can quickly adapt to having the technology, at least.
Do you believe western culture so advanced that it can assimilate any amount of people without causing widespread conflict (which would come to a migrating cultures adaptability, and the ability of the native culture to adapt the other)?
Over a realistic timeframe, yes.
How would you see security? Would you mind if the other country doesn't have as strict security measures as your home country, since the borders are open?
I think our security measures are much too strict, so I hope they don't.
How could open borders be a pragmatic approach for libertarianism when a good number of people would be coming from more authoritarian countries?
After 1865, almost all immigrants to the U.S. came from more authoritarian countries. It's hard to see what political harm they did.
More to the point, people from more authoritarian countries are indeed likely to be more authoritarian. But how much? Looking at the data, it's a marginal difference at most. And since immigrants have very low participation, the problem is even smaller than it looks. 2nd generation immigrants, moreover, largely assimilate to their new political culture.
What made you decide to write this book as "Open Borders" instead of something more neutral, inquisitive, or clickbaity?
There are a lot of people I think would enjoy a scientific & philosophical look at immigration, but with the conclusion painted on the cover it feels a little presumptuous to suggest it to friends.
(P.S., I'm enjoying the book personally, but only about halfway through!)
Since I'm a professor, I have the luxury of writing the books I think ought to be written. I don't want to be neutral or clickbaity.
I think Open Borders is "inquisitive," though after a lot of inquiring, I've got controversial answers to sell...
Hey Bryan! I remember you were thinking of putting this:
I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally. Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet. Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son. Seriously. I want to experience the sublime bond I'm sure we'd share. I'm confident that he'd be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me. I'm not pushing others to clone themselves. I'm not asking anyone else to pay for my dream. I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone. Is that too much to ask?
In Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. Wanted to ask the reasons why you ended up cutting it?
I think my editor suggested that the book was already controversial enough. I never say things I don't believe, but I don't always say all I believe.
What is your response to the claim that nations are defined by their physical territory, and therefore, borders?
It's a red herring. The US had virtually open borders for over a century. Was it not a nation then?
Might have my history a bit wrong. But as I understand it free trade has often progressed through bilateral agreements between pairs of countries. The equivilent for open borders would be gradually easing restrictions in deals with other specific countries (rather than easing restrictions generally to all foreigners). Obviously we can see progress here in some places, notably the Schengen Area, the India/Nepal border or the UK/Ireland border.
One concern I have for the US, is that steps like this (e.g. open border with Canada that you mention) will have trouble with opposition from the left because they will be seen as preferencing certain immigrants - probably from whiter and more western countries - which clashes with core liberal principles.
What is your thought about the possibility progress towards freer immigration along these lines. Is opening "borders" country by country a realistic strategy in the US?
I don't know the research here very well, so perhaps you're right. I think pro-immigration people should welcome a U.S.-Canadian deal just to get the ball rolling. Would the left oppose it? Maybe, though the American left is very fond of Canada. I suspect that the right would be more opposed, if only because they worry an open border with Mexico would be next.
What is your take on the Current Affairs piece  criticizing The Case Against Education?
Sorry, can't read it now! Anything specific?
I know that on the internet (and in academia) it's fun to be a contrarian and play around with weird ideas. How certain are you that open borders are great, and that you're not just being contrarian for fun? If you were supreme dictator of the US would you implement open borders tomorrow, or wait for more research?
If I were supreme dictator, I would implement open borders tonight. I'm not being contrarian for fun. I'd be perfectly happy in a world where my views were normal, and wouldn't feel the need to disagree just to be different.
BTW, there are many other views I hold that I would not implement right away, because I don't know enough or the transition costs are too high. I don't know any good way to privatize the roads quickly, for example. For immigration, though, the gains are so large and clear that I'm ready to go now.
Why don't you start with countries that have stricter immigration than the US? Like Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, Israel, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, China, Australia, the EU countries, Norway, The UK, etc.?
Like, if you have good ideas it should be relatively easy to get one of the countries in the world to have open-borders, right?
Canada and Australia both have less strict immigration policies than the U.S. But as I say in the book, I focus on the U.S. because 1. The U.S. is the world's leading nation. 2. The U.S. is immigrants' favorite destination. 3. The U.S. has a glorious history of open borders. 4. Most research is about the U.S. 5. Welcoming immigrants in still central to Americans' identity.
I loved the book, and found the arguments for open borders really compelling! At the same time, it seems like various nations have been experiencing a lot of social unrest recently centered around refugees and immigration. ("What about all the refugee problems in France?" is the first objection I hear when explaining the book.)
Even if much of the unrest is a case of people latching onto foreigners as scapegoats for unrelated problems, how do we deal with the fact that irrational prejudice against immigrants *creates* culture clash, which then retroactively justifies the prejudice? How do we stop the cycle of exclusion and nativism?
Preach numeracy and practice calmness. Neither is very effective, but I don't know anything better.
Hello Bryan, the past couple years you have been the most influential thinker to me (and my family, which is about to be +1 thanks in large part to your arguments in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids!)
Long question, but I hope it will be worth it: I know you are not shy about wanting to spread clear thinking about economics and reach large numbers, and I was wondering... Have you considered participating in the economics-related debates/discussions that happen on Twitch.tv? These are done in front of thousands live and many tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands will see them on Youtube. Typically the debates are between one of the politically-interested video game streamer and their viewers. They will all be, in the best case, trying to puzzle through economic theories and papers, and the "expert" in the call might be no more than a 2nd year economics undergrad. They need the help of real economists, ones that can speak actual easy-to-understand language. They will debate for hours what the effects of tarrifs with China might be, but they don't have the expertise to know what economic consensus is. They will puzzle through what "rationality" means to economists, but never have an economist to adjudicate it. These kinds of online debates/discussions are (sadly?) how many young people are learning about economics. Like I said, tens of thousands of live viewers engage with this every day.
Here's an example. This is just a 1v1 but its sometimes up to 8 people at once: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Cmw90Dz_Fw
And the channel of one of the popular more intellectually honest and curious people working through these issues: www.twitch.tv/destiny
Discord where you could contact him: https://discordapp.com/invite/destiny
Benefits include: influence the economic literacy of young politically engaged people, no prep required (questions will be low-mid level), very high viewership and engagement return on very low time/effort investment. Would you be interested in getting in contact with one/some of these debaters and help them and their tens of thousands of young, interested viewers better understand economics?
I know little about this, but I'm open to trying it. Especially if someone like you does the legwork...
If they took their arguments against immigration seriously, they'd stop being libertarians. After all, if a country is the collective property of its citizens, then you shouldn't just need government permission to immigrate. You should also need government permission to run a business, build a house, grow food, or speak your mind.
Hey Bryan, three questions for you:
I’ve often seen internal migration restrictions used as a reductio for some of the rationales for immigration restrictions, but aren’t there examples in the US of major intra-national migrations (like from the south to northern cities) dramatically changing a city for the worse, especially in its governance? Do you have by comments on this phenomenon? I’m very on board with your thesis, but this is an interesting counterpoint I’ve wondered about.
What are a few of your biggest deviations from libertarianism?
What are a few of the (seemingly) nuttiest views you hold that you’re willing to publicly acknowledge?
Who are the best left and right advocates you’ve spoken to in the course of writing the book?
Who are the best in the US and internationally?
The truth is that I read far more people than I ever speak to. I cited almost everyone I think is really good (though of course I also cited a lot of people that don't seem so good to me).