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Jan Ting on Immigration

Summary:
St. Olaf College hosted a forum on immigration and national sovereignty last night, with Jan Ting, Natalie Molina, and me. You can watch the video of it here: https://www.stolaf.edu/multimedia/play/?e=2425A quick summary of some of the things Ting either said, argued, or insinuated, and what was wrong with them.1. He repeated insinuated that of course rich people and capital owners love open borders, because they just want to get cheap labor into the US so they can workers pay less. (No evidence given for that claim, of course.)Problems: First, I’d already discussed the empirical evidence on how immigration affects wages, and that evidence overwhelmingly shows that most domestic workers would see their wages go up, not down, due to complementarity effects. Even Borjas, the

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St. Olaf College hosted a forum on immigration and national sovereignty last night, with Jan Ting, Natalie Molina, and me.

You can watch the video of it here: https://www.stolaf.edu/multimedia/play/?e=2425

A quick summary of some of the things Ting either said, argued, or insinuated, and what was wrong with them.

1. He repeated insinuated that of course rich people and capital owners love open borders, because they just want to get cheap labor into the US so they can workers pay less. (No evidence given for that claim, of course.)

Problems:

First, I’d already discussed the empirical evidence on how immigration affects wages, and that evidence overwhelmingly shows that most domestic workers would see their wages go up, not down, due to complementarity effects. Even Borjas, the most skeptical person in the literature, agrees that only a small number of low skilled, uneducated workers would see short term losses.

Second, capital can already take advantage of cheap labor. As I explain in the video, it’s easy for capital to move across borders and to employ and exploit third world unskilled laborers, whose wages are artificially low due to immigration restrictions. If you want to stop capital from exploiting labor, you’d want to remove the impediments which reduce their earning power and which give factory owners extra bargaining power.

2. He said he doesn’t really believe the studies which say that immigrants commit less crime than domestic-born Americans. But, regardless, any crime committed by an illegal immigrant is avoidable, because that person shouldn’t be here in the first place.

My response: If you want to stop avoidable crimes, I have an even better idea: Let’s forbid white people from West Virginia from reproducing and having children, but allow white people from New Hampshire to do so. Etc. After all, we can identify groups of people in the United States who have a high propensity for crime, and allowing them to have children statistically guarantees higher crime than, say, allowing in lots of Mexican migrants. If that offends you–as it should–then you can see what’s worrisome about these arguments. You don’t overthrow basic liberties because of crime.

3. He said that the US has the most generous immigration system in the world and aims to allow 1 million immigrants a year.

Response: One of the main findings in economics over the past 250 years is that, except in special cases, governments are not competent to set prices, determine the quantity and kind of goods and services needed, or engage in this kind of planning. How on earth, then, does the US government know how many immigrants the economy needs? And if it is so smart that it can figure it out, then can it also determine, e.g., how many people from New York should immigrate to Minnesota?

Ting started to respond by saying that the law allows this and that, but I interrupted and said that’s not relevant. I want to know how the government knows what the number is. He continued by explaining what he thinks the constitution says, but didn’t answer my objection.

4. A student asked me what reforms I favored. I said I want to tear the whole system down, so I favor by default all reforms that liberalize immigration and oppose any that restrict it. 

Ting asked me something like, “Well, do you want to tear down the constitution?”

I paused for a second, because yeah, I do. But I ultimately responded with something like: I’m not a legal scholar or an expert on the constitution. However, I’ve read it many times, and I don’t recall any portion of it which actually authorizes the US Congress or anyone else to restrict immigration. Now, of course the government does so, the judges interpret the constitution as permitted it, and so on. But the US government does plenty of things which the constitution doesn’t in any obvious way permit.

Overall, I found Ting to be a friendly, earnest interlocutor, but he seemed to have no problem fabricating complaints about immigration which are not supported by the empirical studies. He had no problem waiving away disconfirming studies–he seems not to have read the vast economics literature on these questions, but he just presumes it’s all wrong.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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