Last Friday, I debated Heritage’s Hans von Spakovsky on “Does Trump’s Immigration Agenda Harm Democracy?”  The resolution was unusual for me in three ways:

1. I usually try to stick to timeless issues.  For this debate, I had to discuss and analyze current events in detail.

2. We were originally going to discuss Trump’s immigration policies, but it’s not clear that he’ll manage to dramatically change immigration policy.  That’s why we switched to his immigration agenda – i.e., the policies Trump would like to impose.

3. Since I put no intrinsic value on democracy, I’d rather argue that immigration policies are harmful, rather than “harmful for democracy.”  But I think I learned a good deal from sticking to the agreed topic.  Hopefully you’ll agree!


Does Trump’s Immigration Agenda Harm Democracy?

Let’s start with the big question: What does it mean to “harm democracy”?  It’s tempting to cynically say:  “harms democracy” equals “clashes with my favorite policies” or even “fails to give power to my party.”  But if you get some distance, there are plenty of plausible standards against which to judge democratic performance.  Above all:

1. In a healthy democracy, leaders calmly assess the evidence before forming a plan to solve social problems.  They consider costs as well as benefits.

2. In a healthy democracy, leaders seek objective estimates of policies’ actual effects, even if they don’t like the answers.  For example, if they’re setting the minimum wage, they’ll want sober estimates of the effect of a $1/hour increase on the number of workers hired.

3. In a healthy democracy, leaders defuse popular prejudices instead of pandering to them. If the majority wrongly believes leeches cure cancer, leaders don’t advocate a $100B National Leech Fund. Instead, they politely but firmly refuse to waste of taxpayer money.

These standards aren’t Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative.  They’re common sense and common decency.

Now, you might say, “Common sense and common decency aren’t so common.” Or even: “I don’t know any leaders of either party who live up to these standards.  Successful politicians are experts at winning and retaining power, not carefully crafting wise policy.  And the way to win and retain power is to tell voters what they want to hear, whether it’s true or not.”

If that’s your reaction, I completely agree.  I have a whole book – called The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies – on the shortcomings of democracy.  But the fact that politicians routinely harm democracy hardly implies they’re all equally harmful. And of course, politicians could be better on some issues than others. So how does Donald Trump’s approach to immigration policy measure up?

1. In the real world, politicians rarely calmly assess evidence before offering solutions.  If you know a politicians’ ideology, you can generally predict what he’s going to say about even the most complex issues.  And immigration is an especially emotional issue.  Even so, Trump’s statements about immigration are unusually intellectually lazy and irrational.  Consider some of his main public reflections on the topic.

a. He’s claimed there are 30-34 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. – roughly triple the number virtually any quant accepts.  When asked for a source, he said, “I am hearing it from other people, and I have seen it written in various newspapers. The truth is the government has no idea how many illegals are here.”

b. “The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States.”  Evidence for this strange conspiracy theory?  None.  And: “Likewise, tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border.”

c. “I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me –  and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

 d. On deportations: “We’re rounding ’em up in a very humane way, in a very nice way. And they’re going to be happy because they want to be legalized. And, by the way, I know it doesn’t sound nice. But not everything is nice.”

Hasn’t Trump also made numerous seemingly incompatible statements about immigration?  Sure.  Which proves my point: he’s so intellectually lazy and irrational he can’t keep his own story straight.

2. Trump’s low-quality thinking might be forgivable if his conclusion about immigration were, by coincidence, roughly accurate.  But they’re not.  Careful scholars have been studying immigration for decades.  Here are their top discoveries.

 a. Contrary to Trump’s many claims about the economic damage of immigration, the overall economic benefits of immigration are enormous.  The idea is simple: Immigrants normally move from countries where wages are low to countries where wages are high.  Why do employers them pay so much more in rich countries than in poor countries?  Because foreign workers are much more productive in rich countries than they are in their home countries.  A Mexican farmers can grow a lot more here than he can in Mexico.  When he does so, the immigrant isn’t merely enriching himself.  He enriches everyone who eats.  Immigration’s gains are so vast that researchers estimate that – in a world where anyone could work anywhere – global production would roughly DOUBLE. 

b. Trump has blamed immigration for seriously harming native workers.  Scholarly estimates, however, generally say that Americans workers are, on balance, richer because of immigration.  Basic point: Immigrants who sell what you sell hurt you, but immigrants who sell what you buy help you.  Since immigration raises total production, gains naturally tend to outweigh losses.  There is debate about immigration’s effects on wages and employment of native high school dropouts.  But even estimates of these losses are low.

c. Trump has also argued that immigrants are a clear fiscal burden on native taxpayers.  This goes against the latest National Academy of Sciences report, which finds a long-run average net gain of $58,000 per immigrant.  There does seem to be a net fiscal burden of high school dropout immigrants, especially older high school dropouts.  But even they’re a much better fiscal deal than native-born dropouts, because their home countries pay for their education.

d. Trump’s claims about immigrant crime have been widely-quoted.  But specialists in immigrant crime almost universally find immigrants have lower crime rates than natives – about one-third lower in recent data.

 3. Is Trump’s immigration agenda at least sincere?  Let’s look at the problems he says he want to solve and the solutions he proposes to solve them – and see how well they fit together.  If Trump really thought “[T]remendous infectious disease is pouring across the border” with Mexico, you’d expect him to instruct the Centers for Disease Control to prioritize this problem, or impose new health restrictions at the Mexican borders.  He hasn’t; in fact, it seems like he’s forgotten he ever mentioned Mexican epidemics.  Similarly, if Trump were really worried about Muslim terrorists, he would presumably want to extend his high-profile executive order to Saudi Arabia.  After all, 15 of the 19 9/11 attackers were Saudi.  But, no.  The heart of Trump’s immigration strategy is to pander to popular prejudices against foreigners, then loudly call for some kind of action.  It’s the Activist’s Fallacy: “Something must be done.  This is something.  Therefore, this must be done.”

But you don’t have to believe me.  You can also see what Trump says when he thinks voters aren’t watching.  The transcript of Trump’s conversation with Mexican President Nieto was leaked a few months ago.  Trump speaking: “Because you and I are both at a point now where we are both saying we are not to pay for the wall. From a political standpoint, that is what we will say. We cannot say that anymore because if you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that. I am willing to say that we will work it out, but that means it will come out in the wash and that is okay. But you cannot say anymore that the United States is going to pay for the wall. I am just going to say that we are working it out. Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important talk about.”

In short, Trump doesn’t really care if Mexico will pay for the wall, but he really cares if Americans believe Mexico will pay for the wall.

Which brings me to the one good thing I have to say about Trump’s immigration agenda: He’s unlikely to actually accomplish much of it.  While he presents himself as a great negotiator, he’s primarily an entertainer. When he endorsed the RAISE Act – which really would greatly reduce immigration – even fellow Republican politicians showed little interest.  So Trump got bored and moved on to the next exciting scene on his Presidential Reality Show.

But aren’t other politicians bad, too?  Of course.  Demagoguery is a key ingredient of any politicians’ path to power – and scapegoating foreigners is classic demagoguery.  But Trump has taken anti-foreign demagoguery to a new level – or at least a local maximum.  If he had his way, we’d lose most of the tremendous social gains of immigration we’ve enjoyed over the last fifty years.  And his problem is not that he’s made subtle errors.  Trump’s problem is that he emoting, not thinking – like a kid who tries to solve algebra problems by asking, “How do x and y make me feel?”  Our problem is that instead of giving him an F, we’ve made him president.