Sunday, May 28, 2006

Immigration and Self-Interest

Steve Sailer and others have been going around making the following argument in response to Alex Tabarrok's open letter on immigration:

For centuries, economists have been explaining that you shouldn't trust people who say, "Trust me, my motives are pure." Self-rationalizations are typically motivated by self-interest. But, now, in a stunning breakthrough, economists have discovered the one kind of human being who is above such tawdry concerns, whose viewpoint is wholly Olympian and disinterested: economists!

Others have asked, essentially, "Why should we trust economists, aren't they acting in their self-interest when they support more open immigration?"

Greg Mankiw responds, saying basically that economists are acting in their enlightened self-interest, and it is in their interest to search for the truth, because of reputational concerns, etc.

All of this back and forth, though, hasn't answered the one simple question I have for the anti-economics crowd: When it comes to a particular issue, immigration in this case, what exactly do economists have to gain from taking a strong position? Most of the anti-immigration crowd has argued that economists have little to lose from increasing legal immigration, or amnesty, etc. We're not in the low-skilled labor market, etc. We have tenure (even though many -- most? -- of us don't), or we don't face foreign competition (we most certainly do -- anyone who says otherwise is simply ignorant about what the job market for Ph.D. economists is like).

But I say fine, we have little to lose. What exactly do we have to gain? Sailer and others have hinted that economists somehow have something to gain here. I don't think we do, beyond Greg Mankiw's explanation that seeking truth is in our long-run, enlightened self-interest. That's hardly scandalous.

Is this the argument???

"Damn them, they're only supporting more immigration because they believe that people are the ultimate resource, and a growing population will improve long-run economic growth, and higher growth rates that follow policies they advocate make them look good! Then they'll get tenure and make more consulting money and be more respected! Those dirty bastards!"

Um, oooookaaaaaaay. Guilty as charged. Look, I don't think Steve Sailer has much to lose from increased immigration. Maybe I should frame my argument the other way, though, and argue that he has nothing to gain, so of course it's easy for him to go around talking about how terrible it is! Easy for you to say, Sailer, you're not desperate to work and live in a first-world country! He sneers at Tabarrok's point about economic ethics, but that seems to be exactly the difference between the economists who signed on to his open letter and the anti-immigration crowd. We, the economists, who have little to lose or gain, see a huge overall net benefit from increased immigration, and we see a net benefit because we bother to consider the benefit to the immigrants themselves. We don't see it as "us vs. them." Probably because we have little to lose.

That said, it's simply wrong to believe that economists enjoy substantial protection from foreign competition. Those of us who are native-born Americans (recently) on the job market know that we just have to differentiate our product in the wake of increased foreign competition. Even then, among the schools I interviewed with at the AEAs, the job I wanted most was offered to a Chinese citizen. I still received multiple offers, and am happy with the way things worked out. But if I were so inclined, I could be bitter about the offers I didn't get, especially those given to... foreigners! And I could be bitter about immigration. But I'm not, mostly because of the theory, empirical evidence, and ethics that Tabarrok points to. I don't know if I have the moral high ground here. But I do have what I believe is the better attitude toward my career, competition, and immigration -- one that it is in my self-interest to have.