Does Conflict Immigrate?
By Bryan Caplan
During today’s debate #2, I circled back to debate #1: If you really want to help the world’s victims of oppression and intolerance, open borders is a cheap, humane alternative to military intervention. How many Rwandan lives would have been saved if Tutsis were free to emigrate to the United States?
My opponent, Jan Ting, had a theoretically interesting response. Open borders wouldn’t just bring in the oppressed; it would also bring in the oppressors. As a result, horrific conflicts would simply relocate from the Third World to the First.
Ting’s argument is extremely compelling… until you look at the facts. The United States contains immigrants from Israel and Palestine, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serbia and Croatia, Arab Muslims and Arab Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, Hutus and Tutsis, and virtually every other tribal pairing we associate with internecine bloodshed. How often do we hear about members of these groups continuing their ancient conflict in their new homeland?
I’m happy to entertain counter-examples, but the first-pass answer is “virtually never.” When people immigrate here, they predictably leave their conflicts behind.
The facts are so clear they beg for an explanation. It’s easy to generate a long list. Top (though not mutually exclusive) contenders:
1. Dilution. Hostile immigrant groups are a tiny share of the existing U.S. population, so they rarely encounter each other.
2. Dispersion. Hostile immigrant groups move to different parts of the U.S., so they rarely encounter each other.
3. Dominance. In their home countries, at least one of the conflicting groups has a serious chance of crushing the other and seizing power. In their new homeland, though, both sides realize that they’re too weak to win.
4. Better things to do. In their home countries, there are few productive opportunities to better yourself, so the opportunity cost of conflict is low. In their new homeland, in contrast, attractive opportunities for self-improvement abound.
5. Multiple equilibria. Most people in conflict-torn lands want peace, but they’re locked into a vicious cycle of reprisal. Entering a new country “resets the clock,” and new arrivals eagerly embrace this new opportunity.
6. Conformity. When you see a lot of violence around you, you fit in by being violent. When you don’t, you fit in by being peaceful.
7. Selection. Peace-loving, Westernized people are typically first in line to flee conflict-torn lands. The worst stay behind killing each other.
Other explanations? Probative evidence on their relative importance? Case-by-case variation? Inquiring minds want to know.