Uberblogger Matt Yglesias recently posted on why an open borders policy for the US–possibly using an auction system to regulate the rate of flow–is a reasonable option, basing his claim on comparative population densities and history:
But the United States ran an open borders regime throughout the 19th century and we weren’t worse off for it. On the contrary, it laid the foundations for American greatness. Shifting back in that direction—with exceptions for dangerous criminals and other select problem types—over time seems perfectly feasible to me and would substantially increase overall human welfare.
Winners and losers
An obvious response is, “who is this we, white man?” Amerindians would have a distinct view on whether they were better off for said open border policy and the land hunger it fuelled. Though Yglesias is correct in that overall human welfare was improved, just as he is correct in suggesting that overall human welfare would be improved if all the 150 million adults who polls indicate would like to migrate to the US did. Nor does raising US population density to 135 people per square mile seem over-crowded–not when you compare it, as he does, to other developed countries:
France has 303 people per square mile and Germany has 593. Japan has 873. The Dutch have 1,287!
But even leaving aside the dispossession of the Amerindians–settler land hunger was, after all, one of the grievances that led to the American Revolution; the commitment of the British Crown to its treaties with the Amerindians and the block that posed to settler land-hunger was one of those decisions-without-representation that the American colonists were aggrieved about–the effect of mass migration on the existing settler-and-descendants population was mixed, to say the least.
In his Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, (which I review here) Nobel memorial Laureate Robert Fogel quantifies how high immigration led to drops in the average height and life expectancy of native-born American workers.
The exceptional health of native-born Northerners during the late eighteenth century is revealed by new time series on stature and life expectation … They show that by the end of Washington’s administration, native-born American white males were more than 68 inches tall (which was 2 to 4 inches taller than the typical Englishman and had an average life expectations of at age 10 of close to 57 years (about 10 years longer than the English). However, both life expectation and stature began to decline early in the nineteenth century. The most rapid period of deterioration was between 1830 and 1860. By the eve of the Civil War life expectation was 10 years less than it had been just before the turn of the century and males born in 1860 reached final heights that were about 1.5 inches less than those born in the early 1830s (p.360).
High immigration advantages new migrants (if they survive the passage) since they benefit from increased opportunities. It advantages owners of capital, whether land (since rents and land prices go up), manufacturing (downward pressure is put on wages while product demand increases), or intellectual (since the migrants are unlikely to compete and demand for their services goes up)
In the case of intellectual capital, the contemporary tendency of the owners of intellectual capital to attempt to form cartels excluding those with competing ideas increases this effect, since support for immigration is a marker for cartel membership. The effect is increased further by encourage cultural diversity in immigration, which decreases intellectual competition from newcomers.That academics in particular live in transnational labour markets also increases their likely comfort with open borders.
High immigration disadvantages resident sellers of labour, through downward pressure on wages, upward pressure on rents and land prices, crowding effects, increased crime from decreased social trust (even though many migrant groups are less likely to be imprisoned for crime than locals) and increased disease exposure. The combination of these factors can outweigh increased demand for labour’s products in an expanded domestic economy and far outdid so in C19th America (when disease control and sanitation were much worse and rates of immigration extraordinarily high). Hence the falling average height and life expectancy.
One of the great themes of politics in settler societies in the C19th was that there were temperate zone migration flows and tropical zone migration flows; working class politics in settler societies was particularly concerned that tropical labour flows not spread into the temperate settler societies. This was far from a irrational concern on their part.
You could say that C19th native-born American workers suffered a milder version of what the preceding (by several millennia) indigenous settlers had suffered from the arrival of a mass of newcomers. Which is not to deny that the US gained both power and dynamism from immigration. (Or, that, for example, the great restriction of US immigration from 1923 was not a major tragedy.)
In his Without Consent or Contract, Fogel sets out how the anti-slavery campaign forged a victorious political coalition (the Republican Party) on the back of directing worker-resentment away from manifesting as nativist xenophobia (a political dead-end, with so many voters being recent migrants) to anti-slavery and resentment of Southern ‘Slave Power’. There are some contemporary parallels for such political dynamics.
An example of contemporary Lincolnesque political ju-jitsu was one John Winston Howard. John Howard’s politics of a sense of control (border enforcement), endorsement (“battler” aspirations) and security (family policy, external threat) were not so different from Lincoln’s: Lincoln finessed nativism, Howard finessed general anti-immigration sentiment. He did this while running a high immigration policy and Australia’s least Eurocentric immigration policy up to that time. Lincoln and co saw off the nativist xenophobia of the Know Nothings, Howard saw off Pauline Hauline. And the jihadis are real enemies.
The differing interests and perspectives on migration create very different attitudes to illegal immigration. If one likes open borders, illegal immigration is a positive. If one does not, enforcement of immigration policy is the only way you can have an effective say on the matter. Since so much of what is at stake is that sense of control, the more visible the illegal immigration, the more politically salient it is. Arriving boats or organised border-crossing are going to figure rather more than visa over-stayers.
How compatible open borders are with how extensive a welfare state is an open question too. While belief that the welfare state channels taxpayer funds to illegal immigrants is a recurring sore-point. Provision of welfare extends the club good nature of the state.
If one looks at the issue from the comfortable heights of intellectual eminence, the gains from open borders seem obvious. They are rather less so to sellers of labour living in suburbs where neither infrastructure nor services keep up with demand.