The Three Axes and Immigration

Vipul Naik uses the three-axis model to examine how immigration restrictionism differs between progressives and conservatives.

Combining a focus on the oppressor-oppressed axis with territorialism and local inequality aversion produces the kinds of proposals and concerns that Costa raised in his EPI blog post. Explicitly, it generally involves a combination of a path to citizenship, stricter enforcement, strong laws against worker exploitation, and an immigration policy designed to benefit currently low-skilled natives.

…center-right individuals are likely to be more focused on concerns of civilization versus barbarism, and while the alien invasion metaphor is probably an exaggeration, basic concern about how illegal immigration undermines the rule of law adds to the general worries about the harms created by immigration. Thus, center-right restrictionists are more likely to favor reform proposals that include attrition through enforcement and stronger border security while simultaneously reducing future levels of legal immigration

For libertarians, of course, immigration restriction is one of the biggest evils in the entire world. From the perspective of the freedom-coercion axis, there is nothing more powerful than the ability to exit government. I believe that America is a great country because through so much of its history it drew people who wanted to exit other lands. Also, the availability of a less-governed frontier gave the pioneers an exit option.

In this century, many trends have made exit more difficult. The consolidation of school districts into gigantic city-wide and county-wide units is one example. The increase in the scope of government (what economists would call “bundling”) is another. The widely-unread Unchecked and Unbalanced talks about problems and solutions in these terms.

I am not sure that I can be charitable toward progressives who favor immigration restriction. I believe that the oppressor-oppressed axis naturally would favor open immigration. However, open immigration is a political loser. The people who are here do not want it to be easy for other people to come in. Even Hispanic citizens probably do not want more immigrants, but they sense (correctly) that some of the hostility toward illegal immigration is motivated by ethnic prejudice. So my uncharitable view is that progressives are choosing the most politically advantageous position on immigration, which is to not stand up for more open immigration policies but instead to express solidarity with Hispanics by showing sympathy with currently-illegal immigrants.

I find it easier to be charitable to conservative immigration restrictionists. I do not see them as being cynical or hypocritical. They are just dead wrong.

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18 Responses to The Three Axes and Immigration

  1. DB says:

    A few questions:

    – I assume you do not think it’s a good idea to permit totally unrestricted entry into anyone’s private property, even in the cases where “anyone” means an organization rather than a single person. Presumably you want Apple to be free to choose who gets to join the company; you just don’t want them to be able to enslave people. At what scale do you think the combination of free exit and self-determined entry rules becomes inferior to universal prohibition of entry restrictions?

    – What do you think of conservative-leaning folks who oppose mass low-skill immigration because they expect it to lead to national mediocrity? (Could you build a company like Apple if you were forced to employ a true cross-section of current Californians?) Or immigration of people who disrespect the values of most existing citizens? These things aren’t quite the same as a general fear of barbarism.

    – What do you think of open borders proponents who claim that every country on Earth (starting with the US) has an immediate moral obligation to do exactly as they say, yet have next to no interest in directly demonstrating the viability of their ideas in smaller countries than the US? If there is really a large win-win to be had here, shouldn’t a considerable number of them want to jump at such opportunities? Or, heck, even just ONE of them?

    • DB says:

      Correction to last paragraph: replace “has an immediate moral obligation to do” with “would massively benefit from doing”. The shrill moral claims are a separate issue (though their current bankruptcy can be inferred from open borders advocates’ universal hypocrisy on this issue).

    • BZ says:

      If the U.S. government restricts private property rights by dictating whom you may invite onto your property from other countries, isn’t that a violation?

      National mediocrity? What’s that? I believe thinking at the margin fixes that “problem”.

      To the last, as Bryan Caplan has written, Anti-Foreign bias is an extremely powerful motivator for non-economic thinking.

      • DB says:

        “If the U.S. government restricts private property rights by dictating whom you may invite onto your property from other countries, isn’t that a violation?”

        If you invite someone to visit for a few weeks or months, the externalities imposed by your action on the rest of society are almost always insignificant; the property rights model works well. And, surprise surprise, it isn’t terribly hard to host foreign visitors in this manner.

        Long-term immigration to the US, on the other hand, has a much larger impact on others, especially if the immigrants have US citizen kids. In this case, if you really want to live with some foreigners, but the majority of the US population does not want to deal with the costs said foreigners would probably impose on them, the moral choices are to either move to their country or a third place, or push for a Coasian bargain that makes enough existing Americans happy (for the transactions that are positive-sum, anyway).

        I fully support creation of new societies which are designed from the ground up to support open borders; where they are part of the implicit social contract, and there are effective mechanisms in place to prevent tragedies of the commons. However, the US is not such a place right now, though it was closer before. Ghost of Christmas Past is essentially correct about low-skill immigrants being pawns used by elites against normal productive citizens; advocating increased immigration *before* terminating this dynamic is very unwise.

        “National mediocrity? What’s that? I believe thinking at the margin fixes that ‘problem’.”

        I’m not sure what you’re trying to say about the margin. I will try to clarify my point (which involves a real and very important nonlinearity that a myopic marginal analysis misses), and you can then clarify yours.

        National mediocrity leads to a massive loss of influence over the future. As flawed as it is, the US military has still sucked less for humanity relative to its power than the military of just about every other top dog in history. (Compare e.g. South Korea with North Korea, or Taiwan with mainland China, or areas conquered by the Mongols *back in the 13th century* with adjacent unconquered areas today.) I would rather not gamble with policies that seriously raise the chance of the US permanently losing its technological edge, because despite its many problems (which Arnold chronicles pretty well), things could be (and often are) much, much worse. And I say this as the person in this discussion who probably has the least to lose from continued US decline.

  2. Jeff says:

    “I find it easier to be charitable to conservative immigration restrictionists. I do not see them as being cynical or hypocritical. They are just dead wrong.”


    Conservatives make two different kinds of arguments against illegal immigration: a principles-based argument along the lines of what you’ve previously described (ie, rampant illegal undermines the rule of law, which is a step in the direction of disorder and barbarism and should therefore be resisted as such), and a more pragmatic argument about how Hispanic educational and economic acheivement lags so far behind native white economic acheivement, often for generations, that a massive influx of Hispanic immigrants is going to substantially burden our beloved welfare state, which conservatives/libertarians seem powerless to shrink. Here’s a good example of this latter stance:

    Which of these arguments is “dead wrong?” I would agree that rule of law concerns appear somewhat overblown at this point (although not entirely baseless), but the more pragmatic argument made in the MacDonald piece appears pretty persuasive, to me at least.

    • BZ says:

      The first is pretty easy to step on, as it doesn’t address the question: “What should policy BE?” In other words, it’s a pretty straight-forward is-ought fallacy. E.G. “Don’t legalize gambling, because it’s against the law, and you care about the law don’t you?”.

      The second is an empirical question, which specific studies have questioned (Check Bryan Caplan’s writing on econlib for references).

  3. Wophugus says:

    The most charitable view of pro-immigration liberals is that they are lying hypocrites?

    How about this view: immigration liberalization weirdly cuts across current ideological divisions, with support from neoliberals and pro-business conservatives and opposition from nationalist conservatives and protectionist liberals. In times of less partisanship, pro-immigration people could work together across party lines (1986’s immigration reform). These days, they can’t. That leaves people who sincerely support immigration on both sides unable to take action on it without losing their seat to a primary challenge.

    The best hope for a path forward is for the issue to align along partisan lines, probably thanks to unions, protectionists, and racists waning as a share of the democrat coalition (and, indeed, it seems to me democrats are getting more willing to tackle the issue).

  4. Wophugus says:

    So to simplify: you seem to be arguing that liberals who claim to support immigration reform take no action because liberals don’t really support immigration reform. I am arguing that plenty do want more liberalized immigration laws, it is bi-partanship they don’t want, and unfortunately, with the pro-immigration faction distributed across both parties, immigration reform requires bipartisanship.

  5. David E says:

    From a conservative view point, unrestricted immigration and drug legalization are both highly risky policies, and the risks are not seriously addressed by libertarians.

    What if 50 million people were to immigrate to the US in one year? What would we do? I’m guessing in would not be pretty. Similarly what if legalizing drugs doubles the number of people that use them and doubles the addiction rate? Would this really be a positive for this country. Remember that from a public health point of view Prohibition was successful.

    Note: with both these issues there are more moderate reforms which are much less risky (e.g. doubling the rate of legal immigration, being more selective about prosecuting illegal drug use or sale or not making it an important foreign policy issue.)

  6. Ghost of Christmas Past says:

    Recap of 3 axes: oppressor-oppressed narrative; civilization-barbarism narrative; freedom-coercion narrative. One end of each axis seems “good” and the other “bad,” as with “freedom = good” and “coercion = bad”.

    It appears to me that people who favor open borders want to “own” all three narratives chiefly by “winning” the definition-of-terms meta-argument. They aver that immigration restrictionists “oppress” potential immigrants,[1] that immigration restrictions “coerce” potential immigrants (who would otherwise enjoy “freedom” to immigrate), and that “civilized” people favor immigration (so those who would restrict it are barbarians).

    There is another way to view things. A dominant fraction of potential immigrants are barbarians[2] who would damage civilization (inevitably even if not willfully) if admitted to more advanced countries. Those barbarians are or would be willing pawns of existing oppressors– statist elites– in advanced countries who already coerce citizens with high taxes and regulations to fund welfare and warfare schemes, “affirmative action” to exclude meritorious upstarts from the lower classes from educational slots and good jobs while replacing them with clients of the regime (who in return support the regime because they know that without official favoritism they would be uncompetitive), and even speech restrictions– complaining about the behaviour (such as “honor killings”) of the elites’ barbarian pawns is already criminally-punished as “hate speech” in EU countries and American elites are actively trying to implement similar coercion in the US.

    In this view, there already exist factions in advanced countries who wish to recruit barbarian allies from foreign countries to help coerce and oppress the less-powerful citizens of advanced countries. The debate over immigration restrictions is really a dispute over how quickly statist elites should be able to recruit barbarian shock troops– “electing a new people” as it has come to be known.

    One test for whether the view of immigrants as pawns of local oppressors is correct might be whether immigration boosters are willing to exclude immigrants from the fruits of local oppression. For example, excluding immigrants and their progeny from redistribution programs (“welfare” programs, affirmative-action schemes, public schools, etc.) would reduce the harm immigration does to citizens. Yet as we see every time Bryan Caplan writes about immigration and skeptics argue with his acolytes in comments on Econlog, nearly all immigration boosters want immigration immediately and reform of redistribution later– or never.

    If you assert the debate only covers the “rights” of would-be immigrants set against some inscrutable collective of oppressors then you may claim to “win” instantly on all three axes. As soon as you admit that potential immigrants are just one set of players– that there are real issues between statist elites in advanced countries and their desire for immigrant allies to help oppress other citizens at home, your moralistic claim evaporates.

    [1] Really, potential immigrants at home in their own countries are oppressed mainly by local oppressors, so immigration restrictions can’t be charged with much harm along that axis. As for the freedom-coercion axis, the “coercion” of immigration restrictions is much attenuated by distance. The freedom of people in advanced countries to maintain their own societies should be wholly discounted when balancing interests along this axis.

    [1] Yes, most potential immigrants really are barbarians by first-world standards. They are not very bright, not well-educated, and believe (truly, deeply, emotionally, believe, and not in some cynical po-mo fashion) horrible things, like “anyone who insults Mohammed MUST be killed as soon as possible”).

  7. BZ says:

    “A dominant fraction of potential immigrants are barbarians[2] who would damage civilization.”

    Wow. Reading this makes me proud to be a libertarian, as not even our most conservative elements believe such things.

    • Ghost of Christmas Past says:

      Please explain more. I thought libertarians believed in individualism, which is to say, that people differ and we should deal with people as they are, not as we might wish them to be. (“Molding” people, e.g., into “new socialist men,” has traditionally been the province of socialists, not libertarians.)

      I do not understand why a libertarian, of all people, would suppose that immigrants leave their personal characteristics behind when they move from one country to another. There is no doubt whatsoever that most of the people in the world differ from current OECD citizens along many dimensions, including cultural ones. Since the “culture” of every population emerges from the preferences and behaviours of the people, you cannot expect to add a bunch of people with different preferences and behaviours to your local population without affecting your local culture.

      Why would a libertarian think otherwise?

      • Arnold Kling says:

        A libertarian might think that immigrants affect local culture. But a libertarian values liberty of all. Local culture is secondary. If you don’t like the local culture, then you should move. You as an individual do not have the right to stop others from buying or renting in your neighborhood. The government should not have that right, either.

        If you think that immigrants bring a barbaric culture, then you are using the conservative heuristic, not the libertarian one.

        • Candide III says:

          Local culture is secondary. If you don’t like the local culture, then you should move.

          A frank statement, by gum. However, I am the local culture. I move away, the culture moves away with me. It thins out and eventually gives way to whatever the immigrants bring with themselves. Whether immigrants come from other countries is immaterial. You might recognize ‘white flight’ and ‘urban decay’ as instances of this phenomenon.

          You as an individual do not have the right to stop others from buying or renting in your neighborhood.

          What actually happens is sorting by income as market pressure from all those wishing to live in nice neighborhoods pushes up property values. I assume you are totally OK with that.

  8. BZ says:

    In my capacity as an unwittingly consistent reductionist, Arnold Kling’s writing just seems to be getting better and better, or at least more interesting, or perhaps I should just say: I dig this way of thinking.

  9. Ajay says:

    Loved your conclusion, :) but you say you “do not see [conservatives] as being cynical or hypocritical.” Hold on a sec. I’ve long felt that one of the reasons nothing gets done on illegal immigration is because that would immediately drive up the wages of immigrant labor. Most of the immigrant nannies and maids and farm workers would be able to bargain for better wages if they didn’t have their illegal status hanging over their head at all times. Since most of the natives like having this bargaining power, they’re not about to lose it by giving the immigrants legal status. Cynical perhaps, but I suspect true.

    I also suspect that most of those who benefit from this situation are conservatives, who would often be running the businesses employing most of these illegals. I say this with absolutely no data, anecdotal or otherwise, just a guess. That would certainly mark them as cynical hypocrites, if true. I’ve certainly met a conservative in Arizona who griped about illegal immigration, only to find out later his wife was an illegal immigrant! Admittedly, this is a lefty oppressor-oppressed view of the situation, but hey, if the shoe fits ;) (I do think the oppressor axis applies here, even if only in a mild way).

  10. KFJ says:

    “I believe that the oppressor-oppressed axis naturally would favor open immigration.”

    What about those of us who oppose open immigration? Polls regularly show that most Americans do so. Are we not oppressed by the ruling class’s determination to keep the influx coming?

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