Systemic Forces

Systemic forces are environmental pressures that shape society independent of any individual’s intentions.  If human nature is immutably self-serving and human knowledge limited, as conservatives often suppose, then constructive systemic forces are critical for advancing prosperity.  The classic example of a productive systemic force is the free market.  The free market allows people to transmit information about their preferences, along with incentives for others to meet those preferences, by accepting or rejecting prices.  Without any central planning board intending it – without anyone intending it – prices constantly reorganize the entire economy to provide an ever increasing satisfaction of human wants.

When immigration is restricted, two types of positive systemic forces are weakened.

First, immigration restrictions weakens the free market.  Wages are one of the most fundamental market prices.  High wages signal that a particular job is useful for satisfying a large amount of human wants.  When wages are higher for landscapers than for farmers, consumers are signaling that they value the services of an additional landscaper more than that of another farmer.  If Mexican workers can migrate freely to America, they can take advantage of the higher landscaping wages, lift themselves out of poverty, and supply a service that Americans value more than additional imported food.  Immigration restrictions inhibit the enriching systemic force of wages to draw laborers where they are most valued.

Immigration restrictions also undermine the systemic force of regulatory competition.  In a world with free trade and low shipping costs, manufacturing companies will build factories in whatever country has the best business environment.  Governments that value the jobs and tax base created by producers are forced to compete to provide a business-friendly regulatory regime.  If they do not, businesses will avoid or leave those countries.

More open immigration intensifies regulatory competition.  If a government knows its citizens cannot escape, it has more power to weigh those citizens down with bad laws.  Governments with the worst laws are always the most eager to make sure their citizens cannot escape – witness the Berlin Wall or North Korea today.  In a world where migration was a quick and easy option for all people, governments would have much less power, for example, to place punitively high tax rates on their most productive citizens to fund dangerously wasteful welfare programs.

Just as free trade forces nations to compete to pass good laws for businesses, free immigration would force nations to compete to pass good laws for people.  In that sense, it is more important than free trade.  By closing off our border, conservatives are undermining the most powerful systemic force for global good governance that could exist.  They are disenfranchising people who want to vote with their feet.  They are also betraying their own trust in the positive power of systemic forces.


  • Bryce Lowder

    Interesting idea. I’ve heard people argue for immigration restrictions as a means of curbing the labor market and keeping wages high, and they do tend to be people who argue against market interference in other cases (hypocrisy, anyone?). But it also seems to me that government meddling that leads to higher wages is a law that is good for the people of that State. Is your argument that this is short-sighted, and that removing immigration restrictions will be good for the State in the long run?

  • wallaceforman

    Well it probably is short-sighted to the extent that it slows economic growth and impedes good government. But it is correct that immigration has a distributional (not simply a harmful) effect on wages. I discuss that briefly below in this post:

    To summarize, a utilitarian ethic that opposes immigration has to prioritize less poor natives over more poor foreigners (and richer natives). This might be a valuable self-serving procedure for less poor natives, but very few people upon reflection adopt this as an actual moral framework that is generalizable across society (whatever is in my interest is justified as law).

    In any event, I’m more sympathetic to rights arguments, at least in this series of posts. A marginal gain to some class does not justify depriving central rights to another (poorer) class.

  • Greg

    I never sent you a response, even though I told you a while back that I would.

    I haven’t written anything satisfactory, but I saw this Tyler Cowen comment and I thought it was interesting (see point number 1):

    This is different from the “the welfare statement can’t handle too much immigration.” By public goods, I think we’re talking about police force, court system, perhaps some transportation infrastructure, public health measures, etc. i.e. Things that small gov’t types like myself would usually support.

    I don’t know how much immigration the system can handle, but maybe there needs to be some restriction of some sort, if only minor. This sort of argument may also push us in the direction of Gary Becker, i.e. immigrants purchase citizenship. Some of this revenue can be used to pay for public goods.

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