Sitting on an Ocean of Talent
By Bryan Caplan
Imagine scientists discover a new substance that reverses aging. They name it Leonium, after Ponce de Leon. The catch: Leonium is vanishingly rare. Some years later, though, the scientists discover a trillion dollars worth of Leonium directly under the Empire State Building.
How would Americans react when they learn they’re sitting on an ocean of Leonium?
First, elation. A trillion dollars of precious Leonium has fallen like manna from heaven – or, to be more precise, risen like manna from the underworld.
Second, frustration. At first blush, the only way to get this Leonium is to demolish the Empire State Building, a structure of great economic and cultural value. The Leonium won’t come easy.
Third, ingenuity. Great minds around the world start brainstorming, desperately trying to figure out a way to gain the Leonium without losing the Empire State Building. People propose hundreds of ideas – even individuals in no position to personally profit if their ideas prevail.
Fourth, tenacity. Great minds don’t despair if the first hundred Leonium extraction proposals are clearly flawed. Instead, they keep hunting for alternatives – and sifting through old proposals in search of a glimmer of hope. Most individual innovators eventually give up, but there’s always a new wave of creativity, drawn to the problem by dreams of eternal glory and endless riches.
During this brainstorming process, a few naysayers fret about the distributional consequences of success: “Only the
rich will benefit.” “Only the owners of the Empire State Building will profit.” “Unprecedented longevity will undermine government retirement
programs.” “Nursing homes will lose jobs.” But most people scoff
at such parochial and misanthropic negativity. Getting Leonium is a great benefit for mankind, period.
Now consider: Economists already know how to extract many trillions of dollars of additional value from the global economy. How? Open borders. Under the status quo, most of the world’s workers are stuck in unproductive backwaters. Under free migration, labor would relocate to more productive regions, massively increasing total production. Standard cost-benefit analysis predicts that global GDP would roughly double. In a deep sense, we are sitting on an ocean of talent – most of which tragically goes to waste year after year.
When people accept this analysis, though, they rarely display elation, frustration, ingenuity, or tenacity. The standard reaction, instead, is naysaying. “First World workers will lose.” “Only the rich will gain.” “They’ll all go on welfare.” “Our culture will be destroyed.” “The immigrants will increase crime.” The underlying attitude is not frustration at the difficulty of realizing mankind’s full potential, but sheer apathy. People look for reasons not to open borders – no matter how enormous its potential social benefits.
My point: Apathy in the face of unrealized multi-trillion dollar gains is absurd. People wouldn’t be apathetic if a trillion dollars worth of Leonium were under the Empire State Building. Instead, people would be constructive – earnestly searching for ways to surmount every impediment to success – natural or social, real or imagined.
I can understand concerns about immigration. I can understand complaints about immigrants. What I can’t understand is indifference to the mind-boggling potential benefits of immigration. The knowledge that we’re sitting on an ocean of talent should haunt great minds day and night. They should pace around their offices telling themselves, “There’s got to be a way to unlock these wasted trillions of dollars of human potential. There’s just got to be a way.” They should publicly propose and debate solutions, always on the look-out for any idea that “just might work.” Keyhole solutions should be on the lips of every intellectually engaged human being.
A massive pool of humanity trapped in the Third World is no less urgent or engaging than a massive pool of Leonium under the Empire State Building. So why are people’s reactions to the two scenarios so different? I say anti-foreign bias clouds our judgment. Psychologically normal humans underestimate the benefits of dealing with foreigners. On a gut level, they see foreigners as a threat. So their response to the promise of open borders is “Why bother?” – even though the common sense reaction is “Oh my God – we’re sitting on an ocean of talent!”