John Lee has written an excellent piece in which he gently chides Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen (mainly the former) for their unwillingness to advocate “open borders.” I put that term in quotation marks because Robert P. Murphy has persuaded me that the term does not accurately express what either John Lee, Bryan Caplan or I want.

But on to the meat of the article. John Lee nicely handles the issue about people coming here mainly for welfare. He writes:

We know Krugman’s assumption of unworkability is unjustified because many welfare systems, including that of the US, already exclude immigrants from most benefits. Don’t take it from me; take it from the federal government. If you need a one-sentence summary, here it is:

With some exceptions, “Qualified Aliens” entering the country after August 22, 1996, are denied “Federal means-tested public benefits” for their first five years in the U.S. as qualified aliens.

“Qualified Aliens” basically refers to what we colloquially might call “legal immigrants”. Unauthorised immigrants never qualify for federal benefits unless and until they become legal immigrants and pass the five-year waiting period.

What of universal, non-means-tested benefits, like Social Security, which is often seen the crowning [sic] jewel of the New Deal? Or of Medicare, the crowning jewel of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” follow-up to the New Deal? Well, anyone half-familiar with the economics of these laws knows the answer: citizen or not, virtually nobody can qualify to receive benefits from either of these programmes without working for at least 10 years (see this report from the conservative Heritage Foundation for more). You would never see a flood of immigrants bringing their aged and infirm to cash in on American universal social benefits, because unless these aged and infirm worked for a decade, they would never qualify.

I think this is a little overstated. Remember that to qualify for benefits, you need to work for 40 quarters. The work need not be full-time. One could earn a small amount every quarter and then qualify.

But the spirit of his analysis is correct. Welfare in the United States is unlikely to be a huge magnet for immigrants and what is likely to be a much stronger magnet is the chance for a much higher-paying job.

I recommend reading the whole long article. I recommend it for not only the content but also the respectful tone. Were I teaching a class in rhetoric, I would use this as a reading. Indeed, two economist friends were the ones who recommended the piece and both of them highlighted the tone.

John Lee’s personal statement is here. Bryan Caplan’s post in which he took on Paul Krugman on similar grounds is here.

Personal note that’s only slightly relevant: My friend and co-author Charley Hooper and I had a wonderful visit with Bryan Caplan at his parents’ home in Los Angeles yesterday.