Interview with Trent McBride, Including the Political Consequences of Immigration
By Bryan Caplan
Here’s a print interview with Trent McBride of Distributed Republic. I had a lot of fun doing it, and there’s little overlap with the (also very fun) Nick Schulz TCS interview. The highlight for EconLog readers will no doubt be my discussion of the political effects of immigration.
I begin by clarifying the arithmetic:
TM: If more poorly educated voters lead to more irrational economic policies, is this a reason to oppose a lot of immigration (presuming immigrants would be less educated)?
BC: This is a complicated question; I’ll blog it in coming weeks. Short version:
If you care as much about immigrants as natives, this is no reason to oppose immigration. Consider the following example:
Suppose there are two countries with equal populations. The quality of policy ranges from 0-10, 10 being best. In country A, bliss points (people’s first choice for policy) are uniformly distributed from 2-6. In country B, bliss points are uniformly distributed from 4-8.
What does democratic competition deliver? When the countries are independent, country A gets a policy quality of 4 (the median of the uniform distribution from 2-6), and country B gets a policy quality of 6 (the median of the uniform distribution from 4-8). Average policy that people live under: 50%*4+50%*6=5.
Now suppose you open the borders, and everyone moves to country B (the richer country). The median of the whole distribution is 5. Result: The immigrants live under better policies, the natives live under worse policies. The average (5) remains unchanged.
Then I move on to substance:
That’s small consolation to the natives, you say? Keep in mind that even in the simplest model, the economic benefits of immigration for natives could easily outweigh the political losses for natives.
In any case, the simplest model seriously overstates natives’ political losses for natives. Some of the main reasons:
- Empirically, non-natives are markedly less likely to vote than natives, even controlling for education and age. Immigration has a considerably smaller effect on the median voter than it does on the median resident.
- Natives start with a near-monopoly on political slack. At least initially, all of the incumbent politicians, government officials, media leaders, etc. will be natives, and will tend to use their slack to prevent deterioration of the political status quo.
- “Faith in rulers,” another source of political slack that I discuss in my book, makes immigrants more likely to simply accept whatever policies are already in place.
- Although poor immigrants are likely to support a bigger welfare state than natives do, the presence of poor immigrants makes natives turn against the welfare state. Why would this be? As a rule, people are happy to vote to “take care of their own”; that’s what the welfare state is all about. So when the poor are culturally very similar to the rich, as they are in places like Denmark and Sweden, support for the welfare state tends to be uniformly strong.
As the poor become more culturally distant from the rich, however, support for the welfare state becomes weaker and less uniform. There is good evidence, for example, that support for the welfare state is weaker in the U.S. than in Europe because our poor are disproportionately black. Since white Americans don’t identify with black Americans to the same degree that rich Danes identify with poor Danes, most Americans are comfortable having a relatively small welfare state.
Thus, even though black Americans are unusually supportive of the welfare state, it is entirely possible that the presence of black Americans has on net made our welfare state smaller by eroding white support for it.
Immigration is likely to have an even stronger counter-balancing effect on natives’ policy preferences because, as far as most Americans are concerned, immigrants from Latin American are much more of an “out-group” than American blacks. Faced with the choice to either cut social services or give “a bunch of foreigners” equal access, natives will lean in the direction of cuts. In fact, I can’t think of anything more likely to make natives turn against the welfare state than forcing them to choose between (a) helping no one, and (b) helping everyone regardless of national origin.
Finally, let me add that even if immigrants do have negative political consequences, solutions should focus on the alleged problem. If you don’t like how immigrants vote, the solution is to deny immigrants the right to vote. If you don’t want to pay taxes to support immigrants, the solution is to make immigrants ineligible for benefits. Whatever you do, don’t campaign to close the border and deport millions of people back to Third World poverty.
In coming weeks, I’ll expand this response to a series of 2-5 posts. So stay tuned.