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Immigration and trade

November 11, 2014

Conservative economist Bryan Caplan makes the economic argument for open borders, beginning with this: it makes everyone richer. A University College of London study credits immigration for an additional £20 billion of GDP for the UK. It is virtually the same as the argument for international trade. Both are broadly supported by economists. There are some economic arguments against, but most concern second-order effects. Immigrants don’t cost more in social services than the benefit they provide. Nor do they cause job losses.

Opposition to trade agreements tends to come from the left, where opposition to immigration comes from the right. The classical liberal position favors liberal policies for both. Obama is one politician who takes that stand. We’ll soon see how many Republicans share it. Aside from a degree of opposing polarity on the political spectrum, there are some interesting parallels between these issues. First, almost no one suggests erecting trade or migration barriers within a nation. No one ever argues that Massachusetts shouldn’t trade with Louisiana because it is thereby shipping its pollution to a political regime that has little concern for the environment, or that Texas should close its borders to Californians to prevent Californians from stealing Texas jobs or their children from going to Texas schools. Second, one suspects that opponents aren’t much motivated by economics, even when resorting to economic arguments. Leftist opponents to trade may voice concern about working conditions abroad and dispute resolution issues, but one suspects they mostly dislike corporations that would be its first beneficiaries. The right wing is morally incensed that we provide social services to immigrants, and that indignation is not ameliorated by the fact that the economic benefit of immigration outweighs the cost.

There is a significant difference. Liberal policies on trade and immigration both make us richer. Immigration also is a personal liberty issue. People have better lives when they are freer to choose where to live and work. If you suspect someone is an authoritarian conservative masquerading as a libertarian because the latter is fashionable, ask him where he stands on immigration.

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