Two immigrants debate immigration

A month or two back, Professor George Borgas, professor of economics at the Kennedy School at Harvard and a leading researcher on the economics of immigration (and a Cuban immigrant in childhood) published a new book, We Wanted Workers: Unravelling the Immigration Narrative.  Borgas’s empirical work has led him to be somewhat sceptical of whether there are material economic gains to Americans from non-citizen immigration, and to suggest that perhaps immigration policy –  even in the US – is largely just a redistributionist policy, typically away from the more lowly-skilled Americans.  His empirical work has suggested long-term losses to these relatively low income people.

I haven’t yet read the book – much of which, I understand, is a more popular treatment of material dealt with more formally in his Immigration Economics a couple of years ago But Reason magazine –  a libertarian-oriented publication – has published a substantial and considered exchange of views, prompted by Borgas’s book, between Borgas and Shikha Dalmia, a senior analyst at a US libertarian think-tank (and an Indian immigrant).    Dalmia apparently describes herself as a “progressive libertarian and an agnostic with Buddhist longings and a Sufi soul”, so probably not your typical libertarian.

The exchange between Borgas and Dalmia is now freely available on-line here.    For anyone interested in immigration issues, it is worth reading.  The specific issues are, of course, a bit different here than they are in the United States.  A recent New Yorker review of various books on immigration, including Borgas’s, is also worth reading.

From the Reason debate perhaps two extracts struck me most forcefully.  The first from the libertarian open borders  Shikha

I agree completely that the “overreliance on economic modeling and statistical findings” on this subject is a regrettable development that fosters the notion that “purely technocratic determinations of public policy” are possible. In fact, the scientific hubris underlying such efforts prevents a full airing of the normative and ideological commitments that ultimately do—and perhaps should—guide policy.

and the second from Borgas

I ended my discussion in the first round by noting that “immigration creates winners and losers and the net gain may not be as large as some had hoped. So any discussion of immigration policy has to contrast the gains accruing to the winners with the losses suffered by the losers.” You did not address this very thorny issue in your response, so let me conclude by rephrasing it in even starker terms, as it isolates the problem at the core of our disagreement.

The evidence summarized in We Wanted Workers suggests that it is quite possible that the “efficiency gains” that receive so much emphasis in the libertarian narrative are totally offset by the costs associated with welfare expenditures or harmful productivity spillovers. As I said, it may well be that “immigration is just another government redistribution program.” My italicization of “just” was not a random click on my track pad. It was meant to drive home the point that there is a good chance that all that immigration does is redistribute wealth.

If there are no efficiency gains to be had, then espousing any specific immigration policy is nothing but a declaration that group x is preferred to group y. It is easy to avoid clarifying who you are rooting for by trying to reframe the debate in terms of amorphous philosophical ideals about mobility rights and the like. But this is where we go our separate ways.

When I read yesterday a new IMF article by Sebastian Mallaby (itself quite worth reading) asserting that “the movement of people [is] perhaps the most important of the three traditional forms of globalisation”, it brought home again how essentially ideological (meant not in a pejorative sense, but rather as “driven off a prior world view”, and we all have them) much of the support for large scale immigration often is.  Perhaps the same can be said for the sceptics.  And perhaps that is both inevitable, and not necessarily a problem, so long as we recognise the nature of the debate.