Open Borders in the New Yorker
By Bryan Caplan
Zoey Poll has written my favorite review of Open Borders in the latest issue of the New Yorker. Why favorite? Because the review is not only accurate and enthusiastic, but visually attentive: “The illustrations in “Open Borders” are playful, bright, and irreverent; their simple style evokes Caplan’s relentless optimism.” As far as I know, no other reviewer pays so much attention to our imagery. Examples:
What about poorer countries, with low returns on labor, from which immigrants would flow? Presumably, an open-border policy would lead to a mass exodus. And yet an illustrated version of Caplan, working as a Western Union teller, reassures these countries that they would be rewarded with compensatory, monumental remittances. Brain drain wouldn’t be an issue, since the total liberalization of movement would allow everyone—not just the highly skilled—to emigrate.
Caplan writes that a “ghost town,” in which a dwindling labor pool keeps wages high, is preferable to the “zombie” towns, which trap their residents in moribund economies, that are created by the current system. (A sign on a zombie-infested Main Street reads “brains 50% off!”)
Caplan imagines a debate with Milton Friedman, who once declared that free immigration and a welfare state couldn’t coëxist. Caplan, pictured alongside Friedman in a maternity ward, explains why the fact that some immigrants end up depending on social services is a weak argument: some native-born babies grow up to depend on social services, too, and yet no one argues that we ought to restrict reproduction.
Still, there are reasons not to discount open-border thinking as mere provocation, or to see it as an idea confined solely to libertarianism. Caplan argues that birthright citizenship is a lottery of opportunity—in an accompanying illustration, a gambler at an immigration slot machine hits the jackpot (“U$A”)—and other thinkers agree.
Admittedly, Poll’s not pleased with all of our visuals, but I do stand by them.
And yet, when they aren’t harmlessly humorous—statistics floating in hot-air balloons; Americans eating “Conspicuous Pecansumption” ice cream—they tend to reduce their subjects to caricature. “Poor countries” are depicted using images of generic slums and anonymous, emaciated brown people;
Our Third World slums are hardly “generic”; virtually every one is based on reference photos of actual locations. And their residents are hardly “anonymous”; check out the kids on p.4, or the migrants on p.11. Zach strives to give even one-shot characters their humanity, and it shows.
a person who smuggles migrants in the desert is represented as an actual coyote, wearing sunglasses.
Guilty as charged. The coyote-as-coyote doesn’t just get our point across; for anyone who grew up on Roadrunner cartoons, it’s funny.
At times, the images embrace stereotypes in glib ways: a Chinese couple running a restaurant stand in for high-skilled immigrants, and a pickup truck crossing the border is presumed to contain those who are low-skilled.
Actually, this page (p.72) shows the contrast between mid-skilled high-school graduates and low-skilled dropouts. I chose the former image not only because this is a common job for first-generation Chinese immigrants, but because so many Chinese restaurants are a feast for the eyes. (Comics geeks will also catch the homage to Herge’s The Blue Lotus).
At other times, perhaps intentionally, the figures are dissonantly cartoonish. It’s hard to reckon with a cartoon version of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who drowned while fleeing Syria, lying face down on the beach. Caplan and Weinersmith may be trying to reach those who looked away from the original photo: elsewhere in the book, Caplan suggests that open borders would make poverty more visible. “Immigration restrictions hide even more poverty than they create,” he writes.
Zach and I heavily weighed whether to incorporate this tragic image. I planned to show it almost unaltered, but Zach convinced me that it would be better to capture the spirit of the image with a silhouette. And yes, we are trying to reach those who looked away from the original photo.
Reactions to a few other critical remarks:
Big businesses are notably absent from Caplan’s list of beneficiaries, although they would profit from an expanded labor pool, too. Partly for this reason, Charles Koch has come out in favor of open borders. (In 2015, Bernie Sanders characterized the idea as “a Koch brothers proposal” designed to “bring in people who will work for two or three dollars an hour.”)
I severely doubt that Charles Koch has ever argued that open borders is good “because it helps big business.” And it’s hard to understand why immigration would be good for big business specifically, rather than business in general. Indeed, the sensible partition would be between domestic businesses that benefit from extra labor supply, and foreign businesses that lose from reduced labor supply. Literally speaking, of course, it is never “businesses” that prosper or suffer, but business owners, which includes virtually everyone with a retirement account.
In a recent piece for Foreign Policy, Caplan praised the Gulf states, such as Qatar, whose temporary-worker programs, which don’t offer paths to citizenship, have made them “more open to immigration than almost anywhere else on Earth.” Such programs have attracted migrants—but they have also proved to be fertile ground for human-rights violations, including passport confiscation and physical abuse.
Such violations are obviously bad. My point, however, is that they are far less bad overall than outright exclusion. Due to immigration restrictions, would-be guest workers are in a tough spot: They can accept severe poverty at home, or take a small risk of violation at a much higher-paid job abroad. The idea that guest workers are oblivious to such risks is fanciful; in the smartphone age, ugly news travels with light-speed from receiving to sending countries. Indeed, it is worth pointing out that low-skilled workers often face severe human rights violations in their home countries. Money aside, are you really sure that you’d rather be a Pakistani working in Pakistan than a Pakistani working in Qatar?
Poll also points out important benefits of open borders that Open Borders fails to discuss:
An open-borders system could likewise address the coming displacement of millions, by rising sea levels, droughts, fires, and storms. The Global North, which is responsible for the great majority of greenhouse-gas emissions, might consider the opening of borders a fair exchange for almost two centuries of pollution.
The New Yorker has never failed to cover one of my books, and I’ve always been pleased by the coverage. I’ve never forgotten Louis Menand’s line that, “Caplan is the sort of economist (are there other sorts? there must be) who engages with the views of non-economists in the way a bulldozer would engage with a picket fence if a bulldozer could express glee.” Poll’s coverage of Open Borders, however, pleases me most of all. She didn’t just read carefully; she looked carefully. This is exactly the kind of reaction I was shooting for when I wrote the book, sitting at this very desk.