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Alex Robbins

My trouble with Judge Posner's suggestion is the cost of administration: specifically, how many U.S. immigration bureaucrats do we really think are qualified to assess the net social loss of a given immigrant, even given perfect information about that immigrant's past (which of course is usually impossible anyway)? The U.S. government has a hard enough time finding individuals of reasonable competency who speak the immigrant's language -- and now we would want them to have a reasonably grasp of economics as well? Even if the bureaucrat were intelligent, he or she would still need the appropriate education/training in how to evaluate "social costs" (starting with what the term even meant). Judge Posner is aware, from experience, that many highly intelligent federal judges often have terrible difficulty in applying elementary economics -- what would we have to pay immigration officials in order to find competent economists? And how would we liquidate the current crop who couldn't learn?

Wouldn't it just be easier to deny immigrants federal social services for a fixed period of time, conduct Prof. Becker's suggested background checks, and then let 'em in? We could leave the state social services issues up to the states, simplifying matters (though this is admittedly a negative externality they'd have to deal with, they could always just follow the federal government's lead, and in any event would have incentives to be less generous than their neighbors).


Charging immigrants a fee to enter, either a flat fee or via auction, will lead to a financing market and immigrants entering with high debt loads which require them to work for years to pay off.

Sounds like... Indentured Servitude!

13th Amendment. I win. Thanks Posner and Becker for reminding us of just how far we have not come since 1776.


"to deny immigrants access to Medicaid and other welfare programs until they had lived in the United States for a significant period of time"

oops, problem is once you naturalize them, this would be denying them equal protection of our laws, we have an Amendment for that too.

What this suggestion amounts to is not giving food stamps to mothers so they can buy milk for their 3 year old child until they "prove their worth" under circumstances that are stacked aganst them precisely because you are not giving them the same access to beneficial social programs that you would give a citizen.

California passed this once, Proposition 207. It was an embarassment to all who lived there, and didn't last long.


"Give me your tired, your poor, your hungry, huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

I guess that has been replaced by "give me your wealthy, your educated, your business men and women, your corporate leaders, your children of privilege, your aristocracy yearning for a Park Avenue apartment."

Is that where the spirit of America has gone?

Daniel Chapman

You're right corey... these solutions are probably unworkable. Cost of living changes completely undo the argument that increased wages will make it easy to pay off an immigration fee, and it would be unconstitutional to deny any public services to a naturalized citizen.

I guess that leaves us with more "practical" problems if you are going to tear down every idealistic suggestion that's presented...

We could eliminate the welfare state and the minimum wage. If the US wasn't a labor magnet, we wouldn't have an immigration flood from Mexico.

We could put sufficient guards on the border and eliminate the lengthy "trial" period for deportation. You're caught at the border? You're on a bus back by lunchtime. It might also help if we had one of those nifty fences like Israel is building. That would be another practical way to control immigration, and it has constitutional validity to boot!

I know you probably disagree with the vast majority of the public regarding whether immigration should be controlled at all. Just remember that most people think something SHOULD be done, and there's nothing wrong with presenting ideas even if they aren't practical under the circumstances. Remember the ideas above and think about how we might have to resort to them if no other ideas are presented.


Interesting ideas. But we seem to forget that it is in the interests of the Nation-States to control population migrations across the globe. Hence the development of various Immigration laws and control procedures. The reality is less developed and overpopulated nations find immigration controls anathema. They can't jettison their surplus population (the tired, the poor, the huddled masses)fast enough. Whereas, the developed nations are trying to control and maintain their population levels in an effort to maintain social welfare programs.

Until this fundamental reality is dealt with; any talk on the subject is empty. The developed nations borders will continue to be swamped with the flotsam and jetsam of the undeveloped world. Who wants to emigrate when life is going well? So much for the selling of visas to the highest bidder.

Hope this helps.


Just an aside, not particular to immigration:

I had very high hopes for this blog. I respect Judge Posner tremendously; he is an excellent judge and an innovative thinker, even though I often disagree with his academic positions. But week after week, I seem to be disappointed by the posts. Yes, the ideas are innovative and sometimes interesting. Judge Posner is not afraid to go against conventional wisdom, which is admirable.

However, as some of the commentators (most notably Corey) continually point out, there is a subtext behind nearly every one of the posts, which looks like class warfare in reverse. The positions advocated by Judge Posner seem, at bottom, to benefit the rich and powerful while hurting those not blessed by privilege. And Judge Posner's posts are moderate compared to Prof. Becker's; his are almost comical in their agenda. I was hoping for more thinking that is truly outside the box. Just me, anyway..

Daniel Chapman

Just out of curiosity, I'll assume for the sake of argument that the arguments you're talking about are actually "hostile" to the poor. It's interesting that you call it "class warfare in reverse." Is it only "class warfare" when talking about a proletariat revolution? If the "classes" are truly at war, then it's probably class warfare no matter which side you're on. The same argument applies to "reverse racism."

More to the point, you can't expect people to change their opinions just because corey keeps saying how wrong they are. The fact is, almost no one agrees with him. I enjoy reading his arguments because it's rare to see someone so openly socialist who presents his ideas so well, but I think he's wrong on just about every count. (I think he may have convinced me on the medicare topic, though.)

Anyway... continue to present your dissenting opinions, but don't expect the people hosting the weblog to change their tune because corey says so.


Daniel -

Perhaps I was not clear enough; I think you are missing my point. I was hoping that this blog would not be about right vs. left. I was hoping that great intellects like Posner and Becker could transcend traditional politics and give insights that would make anyone, regardless of their political persuasion, stop and say: "wow - that's a good thought - something I never considered." If it is just a rehash of right vs. left (or perhaps in this forum, right vs. far right), dressed up with some economics-sounding words, then this blog doesn't add much.

I'm not asking anyone to change his or her views. But I would like the discussion to transcend politics and be a bit less predictable. I don't need Posner or Becker to tell me what the Cato Institute believes. Instead, tell me something I don't know. But maybe that is too much to ask..

Left Wing Extremist

Right Wing Nut Job (either Becnoser or Poseker)said:

In the first stage, the prospective immigrant would be screened for age, health, IQ, criminal record, English language capability, etc.

sounds eerily similar to:



In the first three decades of the 20th Century, American corporate philanthropy combined with prestigious academic fraud to create the pseudoscience eugenics that institutionalized race politics as national policy. The goal: create a superior, white, Nordic race and obliterate the viability of everyone else.
How? By identifying so-called "defective" family trees and subjecting them to legislated segregation and sterilization programs. The victims: poor people, brown-haired white people, African Americans, immigrants, Indians, Eastern European Jews, the infirm and really anyone classified outside the superior genetic lines drawn up by American raceologists. The main culprits were the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune, in league with America's most respected scientists hailing from such prestigious universities as Harvard, Yale and Princeton, operating out of a complex at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island. The eugenic network worked in tandem with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the State Department and numerous state governmental bodies and legislatures throughout the country, and even the U.S. Supreme Court. They were all bent on breeding a eugenically superior race, just as agronomists would breed better strains of corn. The plan was to wipe away the reproductive capability of the weak and inferior.

- - -

Oh, and the reason why their posts and arguments tend to entrench the power of the rich and powerful is because that is what the rich and powerful and their paid-for toadies in academia and conservative think tanks do. (it was Rockefeller, that rapist of the free market that endowed the University of Chicago right?) Neo-classical free-market fantasies like the one's these guy pimp out are just that, fantasies. They forget Mancur Olson -- failure of collective action on the part of the citizenry will lead to governemtn by, for, and of the special interets.

Why don't they put their, I thought, immense intelligence to practical use by coming up with solutions that:

A. Don't rob America of its basic identity as a freedom-loving country open to all.

B. Don't merely justify the status quo.

If ever there was a good argument that tenure is an overrated institution that protects the hidebound and the arrogant...these guys poster children for it.


I do not expect to convert Posner or anyone for whom his ideas seem to resonate internally. I come here and post so that people will at least hear the dissent. If everyone only argues in forums where their ideas are likely to be well received, then we get group polarization and self-reinforcing ideologies.

Unchallenged precepts are bad in many ways, ALL ideas deserve to be tested against the opposite view, and the person who came up with the idea is often least suited to be objective about that. This is the core reason I value diversity in society and in social groups. It is also why Blogs only have social value when the comment feature is turned on.

I was born with an anti-authoritarian streak, and I have always been unable to respect opinions simply because the world has rewarded their author in some way. Posner is doubtless very intelligent, but according to the tests, so am I, and so are most if not all of the people posting here.

What this blog shows us is that even the most respected judges and most lauded economists are occasionally capable of forgetting that indentured servitude is bad, or that concentrations of money distort free-markets.

Anyway, I would never want someone to agree with something I said just because I said it. Either it makes sense to you, or you can find holes in it. There are plenty of places I can go if I feel the need to be agreed with.

Daniel Chapman

Well said, corey

david: Oh I got your point... but isn't the "right v. left" that you see more about world view than partisanship? Judge Posner and Professor Becker are posting their opinions on difficult, and often highly political topics. The fact that the same people tend to disagree with them repeatedly just shows that two people will radically different world views will often come to different conclusions on the same topic.

If you expect them to deviate from their own perspective in the interest of "transcending traditional politics," then you expect them to change their opinions. Honestly, this is the first time I've ever heard of an idea to treat immigration privileges as a commodity, but if you think it's just a rehashing of every conservative think-tank, that's fine.


I of course agree with Corey: I don't want to hear someone parrot my views. In fact, that would be rather shocking, since I'm not very partisan and tend to agree with many people on some things and with very few people on everything. Though I'm definitely left of center for this blog.

The idea of paying for visas is new (to me, at least), but let's be honest: it's silly. It would be like paying for the right to vote. In fact, it *is* paying for the right to vote, since the new citizens can cast ballots. To me, it evokes thoughts of feudal societies where the only ones with rights are those with land and money.

Similarly silly is the idea for IQ testing of immigrants. And, as was pointed out, it smacks of eugenics. Here's one: how about IQ testing for politicians? Presidential candidates, anyone? :)

The notion that immigration should be curbed because of the welfare state is not new. It's pretty much a conservative myth, because immigrants tend to be very productive and thus good for the tax coffers. In fact, that is one reason for Bush's Mexican guest worker proposal: legitimize the workers and make them pay taxes. But painting immigrants as freeloaders is good politics for the xenophobic right and for the labor union left, who oppose immigration for different, and equally wrong (in my view), reasons.

But back to my original point: I haven't seen much in these posts that blew me away as unusual insights. There is some shock value to the posts: one-upmanship on who can come up with a more shocking proposal that has a bottom line of helping the rich. I'm waiting for something to shock me into thinking, "wow - that's a brilliant idea." Something worthy of a Nobel Prize winner. Hasn't happened yet on this blog.


The idea of paying for immigration is only new in the sense that it has been so long disfavored in civilized societies that we have forgotten the reasons for disfavoring it in the first place.

Living in a coastal city and keeping your eyes open will teach you very fast that each wave of immigrants, having established itself in the American economy, immediately turns to protectionism to keep the next wave of immigrants from doing the same thing.

If you ever get the chance, go to Montreal and contrast the vibe there with that of New York or Boston. Montreal is the most diverse city in this hemisphere I believe, due to Canada's comparatively open immigration policy. Yet it is less violent, less segregated, more culturally sophisticated, and more livable than comparable U.S. cities.

Oh, and as for the welfare state argument, if our cars, our electronics, and the clothes on all our backs were made by "foreigners", how can we in good faith exclude those foreigners from participation in social benefits when they decide to improve their standing by coming here. There is a good chance that the person trying to immigrate has been working for GM or Nike longer than the person trying to bar the gate.

Marc Gersen

I believe Judge Posner's worry about foreign "brain drain" harming Amerian interests is misplaced. Let me consider the example of Iraq, which is probably the example most favorable to Posner's worry.

In Iraq, we observe not a problem of the gifted and talented wanting to flee to the United States or other developed countries, but rather, a surprising number of expatriate Iraqis who wish to return to Iraq and be involved and the reconstruction of Iraqi civil society. These expatriates may not be welcomed by "native" Iraqis, nor are their contributions necessarily positive. Consider Ahmed Chalabi.

In Iraq, and in other LDCs, we ought to leave it to the country to develop its own policy on brain drain. Iraq is surely better able than the INS to determine which Iraqis have expertise in democracy building. Let Iraq, then, develop a policy to keep such people in their country. Similarly, rather than worry about the brain drain, generally, in LDCs, each LDC should develop a policy on the matter. It may either decide that it is not harmed, as closer links with the United States and remittances benefit the home country, or it may decide that it ought to be able to charge an exit fee, to recoup its social investment in such persons leaving. Which path it should pursue, of course, need not be decided by American immigration authorities.

I also disagree with Judge Posner's reasoning on refugees. Not all persecuted minorities have the traits of Jews and Armenians. Some are Gypies. Instead, we ought to consider the value of accepting refugees so as to bolster America's "soft power."

Finally, I would suggest that a variation on debtor's prison would allow a market in immigration loans to successfully develop. Suppose immigrant borrow from banks with zero downpayment. If banks foreclose on the loan, the debtor could be deported back to his home country. This would be even more feasible if the immigration fee were structured so that one could get a partial refund if he left the country "soon," say, within 5 years. The bank would then be eligible to collect the refund due to the deported bankrupt.

Michael Walker

Appears to be a human capital issue. Developed nations have a strong interest in robust immigration for economic reasons (low birth-rate developed nations need to replenish labor supply; keep inflation under control; and keep cost of labor down).

Yet developed nations need both high and low wage immigrants. Thus, it may not be advisable to favor educated and wealthy immigrants over poor and uneducated immigrants (net economic benefits to low wage immigration likely outweighs costs). Moreover, the cost-benefit human capital metrics would be speculative and unrealistically complex when formulating and applying immigration law: rules to admit and exclude based on individual immigrants cost-benefit to society. Can you really measure human capital potential of immigrants? One generation of immigrants may be a cost drain and the next generation a cost benefit. A newly admitted poor immigrant may be a cost negative for the first fifteen years and then be a cost benefit for the next twenty.

Example: it is well to remember the U.S. immigration history of the Eastern European Jews in the late 1800�s and early 1900�s: they were initially thought to be �undesirable� immigrants (poor, language deficiency, low IQ test scores) yet became productive cost-benefit citizens over time. And their children excelled in the U.S. educational system and became very successful productive members of society.

Mr. Becker�s proposed fee system would have excluded most Eastern European Jews to the detriment of the U.S. I have doubts about a fee system or purportedly scientific human capital metrics incorporated into immigration law to produce a prudent immigration policy.


Try not to laugh too hard at the undergraduate econ student, but here I go...
Actually, you can pay your way into the U.S., albeit at a cost much higher than 50K. I'm not sure if this policy was changed in the last decade, but in 1996, you could 'buy' a visa into the United States by investing $1 million into the good ol' USA and creating 10 jobs. If you create the jobs in a high unemployment area, you only need to invest $500K. 10,000 were available in 1996, and only 936 were sold. I'm getting this information from the book "Heaven's Door" by George Borjas, a book I used for a paper on immigration I wrote last year. I forget the page number.
I apologize for asking this question, but which part of immigration policy is the fee system or the screening system supposed to replace (in whole or in part): The lottery for visas, the family-reunification policy, both, or neither? If it's replacing part of the family reunification policy, is it better for the system to reward the individual based on his/her merits (monetary or otherwise, depending on the system) or based on who he/she is related to? If it's replacing the lottery, is it more fair to admit someone based on random chance or based on what they're willing and able to contribute to the U.S.? In essence, I'm asking if you think what Becker and/or Posner are suggesting is better or worse than the current system.
I guess I'll leave you with a factoid and a question instead of giving my opinion on anything

Alex Robbins

Fellow posters (especially Corey)-

I really don't understand how some of you can characterize either Judge Posner's or Professor Becker's views as "right" or "extreme right." They both would probably concede that, absent a welfare state, we should have unlimited immigration as we did in the 19th century. Does this sound like Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh to you? The reason we're discussing charging people in the first place is the unfortunate existence of excessive social services -- you may not agree with this assumption, but it is a libertarian position, not a "right-wing" one. It's also interesting that the two posters to at least implicitly play the race card were N.E. Hatfield and Left Wing Extremist. Hatfield, in particular, seems strangely wedded to the idea that any large group of human beings can be "flotsam." The idea is anethema to both Christianity and free-market classical liberalism, which should in theory cover pretty much every "right wing" person in this country (yet somehow does not include Fox News anchors). More importantly, it's demostrably untrue, as a look the growth of any formerly "flotsam" filled country like Japan or Taiwan or Poland or Chile will tell you. Left Wing Extremist, for his part, seems to think that any policy which has the effect of excluding some non-white people is per se evil, without bothering to justify it. It's almost as though -- and I don't mean to suggest that any specific posters here feel this way -- that both the "left" and the "right" both believe that immigration (particularly non-white immigration, though this historically applied to Jews and Catholics and Slavs and Irish -- how many of us here belong to one of these groups?) will destroy American society, and accordingly the right opposes it and the left supports it. The proposition is flawed to begin with, so neither side makes any sense although both are bizarrely fixated on race. At least Judge Posner and Prof. Becker are getting beyond that idiotic dichotomy and trying to have a real discussion about the issue.

Michael Martin


Before concluding that the subtext for Posner and Becker is "class warfare in reverse" on the basis of Corey's rhetorical flourishes, you should consider whether Corey's own reading of them is distorting your own.

For example, Corey chastises Posner's suggestion that social welfare be made available only after living in the U.S. for sometime as a violation of equal protection rights of naturalized citizens. Actually, most immigrants don't naturalize until long after they've been residents, so their status as citizens doesn't guarantee them equal protection. But as it turns out, their status as citizens doesn't matter since plenty of federal courts have recognized equal protection rights even for illegal aliens. Corey is merely begging the question here by arguing that Posner's suggestion is unconstitutional.

Actually, Corey's up to the same trick when he accuses Posner's proposal of violating the 13th's ban on indentured servitude. If Posner's proposal is unconstitutional, then there's at least an argument that many student loans should also be considered unconstitutional since they also take on large debt loads in order to gain access to a subset of society.

Although I am with Corey (I think) in a desire to advance social welfare, especially of the least advantaged in society, the sad fact is that many gov't programs established to benefit the least advantaged might as well have been abolished -- if minimum wage workers had their social security payments in hand rather than "in safekeeping" for their future retirement, for example, they might be able to afford the medical care that they need to live to retirement!

As Posner I thought nicely explained in last week's post, the subtext for Becker's and Posner's proposals is not class warfare, but a belief in the average American's ability to decide for themselves (by voting with their pocketbooks) what benefits they want. Gov't is only justified when it can improve on what individuals would otherwise have without it.


"As Posner I thought nicely explained in last week's post, the subtext for Becker's and Posner's proposals is not class warfare, but a belief in the average American's ability to decide for themselves (by voting with their pocketbooks) what benefits they want. Gov't is only justified when it can improve on what individuals would otherwise have without it."

This is the myth: that average Americans can "decide for themselves" by "voting with their pocketbooks." I agree that this is true with respect to many, many commercial transactions. But for some big societal policy decisions, the market can be skewed so that the "average American" effectively does not have a choice. Or perhaps the average American's choices, barring gov't intervention, are unconscionable.

The fact is that laissez-faire skews the system in favor of those who are -- by virtue of birth, past success, or whatever -- currently higher on the economic ladder. Those who have been less fortunate have a harder time, as a class. I respect anyone's right to believe in pure laissez-faire capitalism, but they should realize whose interests they are serving. That's why we had a New Deal, after all.


I guess my disappointment (maybe expressed over-dramatically in my posts yesterday, I admit) is that every one of these debates seems to come down to right vs. left. Of all things, why should immigration policy be about class warfare or laissez-faire versus intervention? Why not discuss the character and the soul of our nation? If America is just another prestigious, private club that one can buy into, what happens to our moral authority in the world? What happens to the principle of our founding -- as a place for the persecuted to come for freedom and hope? What happens to the dream of a classless society?

Maybe I'm just too idealistic..

Daniel Chapman

"Or perhaps the average American's choices, barring government intervention, are unconscionable."

Unconscionable to whom?


Gee, a one-time only payment of $50K counts as indentured servitude, and thus is unconstitutional? My husband and I (we own our own business) paid over $100K in federal income taxes alone last year; can we have our money back? ;-)
For what it is worth, I like the idea of the up-front payment (note that this does NOT have to be the exclusive immigration route), mainly because it will make border control pay for itself, and you at least have a record of the person who enters and a way to track them down later, especially if it is financed. Anyone who is concerned that this would place a limitation on total immigration has never dealt with a govt bureaucracy -- they'll want to expand immigration based on the revenue dollars it will bring in, and he in Washington with a budget to administer has power. Oh, and for those looking to be "progressive," you could index the original entry fee proportionally to the average income of the person's home country (Canadians can pay the full 50K up front; oppressed Sudanese or North Koreans can pay $300 up front and finance the rest). The Becker & Posner proposal is really no different in principle from you being willing to plunk down more dollars to move to a smaller house in a neighborhood with better schools; so why not ask people looking to get into a country better than the one they left behind (with all the social-welfare benefits along with it) to pay a civilization premium?
For what it is worth, I've also felt that to avoid class warfare on "the rich" (it goes both ways, ya know), the budget for social services available to everyone at no cost and/or where distributed benefits are not means-tested for those truly needy should be added up, divided by the number of adults over the age of 18, and everyone should have to pay an equal percentage of their fair share. Call it "civilizational rent." Just try to expand government services nationwide when everyone realizes that the extra 30 billion spent will mean $100 or more out of their own pocket...


"Unconscionable to whom?"

Now you have asked the $64,000 question! In a democracy, we could say that "to whom" means to 51% of the voters. Taking that logic to its extreme, the rich should only keep as much of their assets as 51% of the population deem reasonable.

I would not go so far. But I would say that, since we are a rich country, we should draw certain lines, below which no one should be permitted to fall. I think Posner would agree with that statement, based on his posts. Though we may disagree on where to draw those lines, and on how many public services the government should provide. But once we have asked the question, the true debate can begin. How unequal a society are we willing to tolerate? I don't mind Donald Trump having 1,000 times my income (I don't know his income - I just threw that number out there). But I would mind if Trump could buy Park Avenue while an unemployed person could not get basic medical care. And, I would find it unconscionable if a persecuted refugee was denied entry to the U.S. for lack of $50,000. Can we start from there and work forward?

Michael Martin

"What happens to the principle of our founding -- as a place for the persecuted to come for freedom and hope?"

I am not a pure free-market believer. I think there are legitimate roles for gov't to intervene and reallocate assets. But the history of gov't legislation, including (maybe especially) New Deal legislation, is not a pure win for the poor. Many New Deal laws passed to "protect workers," for example, had the effect of hurting recent immigrants, who were the main competition to labor unions during industrialization.

Freedom and hope, though worthy moral goals of our political system, are hardly commensurable in a way that will allow us to agree on how to promote them.

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