Henderson on Me on Caplan

David Henderson over at EconLog has written three response posts to my review of Open Borders. Two of these were since I made my comment response post, hence why I’m putting this in a separate post. In his first post, Henderson criticizes my argument from animal suffering, about which, to remind you, I said this:

“I’m also concerned about the animal suffering that would result from open borders. Globally, the production of meat, 90% of which comes from factory farms, creates an almost unimaginable level of suffering. There are two reasons why open borders would make this worse: the Western diet is more meat-heavy than diets from other rich parts of the world, and richer people, in general, consume more animal protein. People sometimes talk about the meat-eater problem: many interventions in global development look much less cost-effective if you give moral concern to animals, since, if the interventions save human lives or make people better off, they lead to greater meat consumption. Increased demand for meat may be unusually harmful now, because it further entrenches factory farming as the default way meat is produced.”

To which he responded:

“At first I found this criticism somewhat persuasive. . . But as I thought about it, I realized that this is not a good argument at all. Let’s say we could reduce the demand for factory farming by imposing draconian regulations that reduce Americans’ per capita income by 80 percent. Would that justify those regulations? I think not. So then how, if we accept the other parts of Bryan’s argument, can we justify, based on reducing factory farming, draconian immigration restrictions to keep many people’s income 80 percent lower than otherwise. Even if you think regulation is justified to reduce factory farming, shouldn’t the regulation be aimed, not at keeping people poor, but at reducing or ending factory farming?”

I admit that I wasn’t very clear on my position here. My position is this: I support a much higher level of immigration, but not open borders. Animal suffering or climate change is not what puts me over the edge. Rather, open borders people seem to way overgeneralise both from America and from a small number of economics papers. On the animal suffering point, I was just trying to point out that this is a cost that many people wouldn’t think of. I admit that draconian regulations that reduced income would be bad, but reduced animal suffering presumably makes them less bad than they otherwise would be. I thought this was something worth thinking about for people on the fence. But it’s not like I was previously convinced of open borders then persuaded otherwise by the animal suffering argument.

In his second post, Henderson expressed dissatisfaction with my response to his first post.

“In his original review, Sam seemed to be saying that open borders are a bad idea because of animal suffering. Otherwise, why raise the issue? But now he says that he’s not saying that. Good. So what is he saying? He’s saying that “open borders is less good of [sic] an idea than it otherwise would be.” So then wouldn’t he have to say that, for the same reason, economic growth for Americans is less good an idea than it otherwise would be? And if that’s so, how much reduction in economic growth does he advocate?”

I suppose my argument does commit me to the belief that there’s a “silver lining” to poverty (to be clear, nowhere near a large enough silver lining to justify poverty!). Economic growth is somewhat of a special case because it bears fruit over centuries. It also accompanies technological change, some of which might be able to lessen animal suffering (e.g. clean meat). Finally, there might be a kind of animal Kuznets curve, where people care more about animals when their country gets richer. (If you think that I’m ignoring applications of the Kuznets curve to immigration, I think even the richest countries today clearly have a problematic relationship with animals.) Economic growth is definitely underrated and I’ve been influenced a lot on this point by Tyler Cowen.

To be clear, this “less good of an idea than it otherwise would be” argument is what I was trying to argue all along, but evidently, I didn’t do a good job communicating it in my original review.

In his third post, Henderson makes two points. One is that he agrees with me that the book is too America-centric. The other is that he disagrees with my implicit compliment of Bryan when I wrote:

“Immigrants account for a quarter of total US invention and entrepreneurship. Maybe this is just because America selectively lets smart and innovative people move there. But maybe there are some agglomeration effects going on here specifically related to immigration? Immigration and clustering people together seems to have been key to the success of various intellectual hubs throughout history, like the Bay Area recently, Vienna in the 20th century, and Edinburgh in the 18th century. This is a ripe topic for progress studies to tackle. Aesthetically, I agree with Caplan’s choice not to talk about this much. People talking about all the “amazing contributions” made by a certain immigrant group often comes off as condescending, in much the same way as token engagement with other cultures might. Make the case for immigration from prosperity and freedom, or don’t make it at all!”

In Henderson’s earlier review of Open Borders, he wrote “While few people would accuse Caplan of understating the benefits from immigration, I am one of those few. Immigrants start businesses at a rate that is twice that of native-born Americans.” Caplan’s book is, I think, pretty clear about selection bias – the immigrants currently let into Western countries are disproportionately rich, educated and hard-working. But it’s less clear about whether there is a mysterious force that makes immigrants qua immigrants more entrepreneurial. This is plausible; there may be something about moving to a new country that leads you to take more risks and not be complacent. It indeed would have been good if Caplan addressed this. I no longer endorse the quote above starting with “Aesthetically”. What I was talking about is this American cultural export where we weigh up the contributions of different immigrant and ethnic groups, as if they were in zero-sum conflict, rather than there just being people who sometimes invent cool stuff. But realistically, Caplan is at no risk of doing this so I don’t know why I even brought it up.    

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