Review: Open Borders

Libertarian economist Bryan Caplan and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal creator Zach Weinersmith have collaborated on a non-fiction graphic novel called Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. As the title suggests, it’s a fully-illustrated graphic novel making the case for open borders. Caplan and Weinersmith’s partnership is unexpected, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Caplan’s enthusiasm and knowledge of the comics medium, combined with Weinersmith’s experience and skill, makes Open Borders enjoyable, easy to read, and engrossing; you could easily read this in a single sitting. However, the format and Caplan’s perspective do present some limitations for the comic’s utility in converting opponents of immigration.

If you have read Caplan’s writing before, some of the arguments will likely be familiar to you. Open Borders reads a lot like a collection of his blog posts in favor of open borders, with up to date data. I would have hoped that the content would draw from both Caplan’s libertarian perspective and Weinersmith’s liberal perspective but it feels very much like Caplan’s ideas, Weinersmith’s presentation. Both Caplan’s viewpoint and his personality come through, for better and worse.

Making the case for such an important yet unpopular position is a major undertaking and one book can’t do all the work by itself. But when Open Borders covers as wide an array of common objections as it does, the missing parts can be all the more conspicuous. Caplan carved out a manageable chunk of this universe by primarily focusing on the United States for the data. And he gives a good enough justification of this toward the end — the US is “migrants’ favorite destination.” Indeed, many of his arguments make sense elsewhere; not all of them do, however, and this handicaps his case. While he fully takes this handicap on, some of the key ingredients he’d need to talk Americans out of anti-immigration views are missing.

One of the objections that restrictionists tend to raise is that immigrants bring violence. Open Borders does a good job at covering that. Being less violent than Americans turns out to be a low bar to clear and as such, immigrants in America tend to clear it. The same can’t be as easily said in Europe. Though exaggerations and myths abound, migrants in Germany, for example, do indeed commit more crime than native Germans.

Since 2014, the proportion of non-German suspects in the crime statistics has increased from 24% to just over 30% (when we take out crimes related to immigration and asylum irregularities).

Breaking that down even further, in 2017 those classified as “asylum applicants or civil war refugees or illegal immigrants” represented a total of 8.5% of all suspects.

This is despite their population representing just 2% of Germany as a whole.

However, other demographic factors partly account for the discrepancy:

In 2014, German men between the ages of 14 and 30 made up 9% of the population and were responsible for half of all the country’s violent crimes.

When it comes to the new arrivals, men aged 16 to 30 made up 27% of all asylum-seekers who came in 2015.

“It is because of the demographics,” claims Dr Dominic Kudlacek, from the Criminological Research Unit of Lower Saxony. “Whether they’re asylum seekers or EU migrants, they are younger than the average population and mostly male. Young men commit more crimes in every society.”

The primary argument in the book doesn’t rest on immigrant crime rates being lower than the population as a whole. It does mean the facts in Open Borders about immigrants being less violent than Americans are, well, parochially American.

The arguments about culture also do well in America, but possibly not in some other countries. America is a major exporter of culture and English is widely spoken as a second language. These things mean that immigrants today will arrive already halfway there to assimilation. But smaller countries where the native population and immigrants don’t know a common lingua franca may indeed find immigrants “refusing to learn the language.” I don’t personally see this as a real long-term problem, but the case here is aimed at traditionalists who will and those in such countries may not be convinced.

While the comic mostly keeps with using America as an example, someone reading this with the hope of gaining ammo to use against fellow Americans may find themselves disappointed when they step outside of spaces where people are well-meaning and receptive to new information. Much of the case against immigration in the US isn’t the somewhat coherent steel-manned positions Caplan presents, but a bundle of urban myths and gross misunderstandings about even the basic facts of how immigration law works. Most Americans, not being immigrants themselves, are rationally ignorant (a subject Caplan likes to write about) about the process of immigration. It is easier for them to confuse different statuses or grossly underestimate the difficulty of “doing it the right way.” They don’t tend to get that immigration is generally not legal. I can foresee many people shaking their heads and thinking “How could this be true? Because I heard…” while reading the comic.

The comic I need to convince a larger swath of people is something equally thick that just goes over the basics of how immigration law works, then busts common myths about immigration and immigrants. There are specific factoids that are popular and many people won’t let go of them if they don’t even see them addressed specifically. It’s one thing to hear something different from what you’ve heard before. It’s another to learn where your belief in particular originated and why it’s wrong.

Perhaps the better audience for Open Borders or the arguments within are people who are already more sympathetic to immigrants. This leads to another issue that comes from the American experience. As Caplan notes later in the comic, support for open borders is increasing on the left, which raises the possibility of it becoming a partisan issue. It’s good then that it covers more of the objections that tend to come from the right. If you get anything from reading it, you should get that accepting immigrants isn’t an act of charity, but mutually beneficial. It covers concerns about crime rates, terrorism, culture, voting patterns of naturalized immigrants, fiscal health, and economic concerns. But the left still needs convincing too.

The promise of another half of the world’s worth of economic output might not be enough to convince conservatives worried about overly rapid cultural change. And some people on the left have concerns about housing prices going up and growing ecological footprints. Caplan might be too good-natured to admit that actually some of the objection is simply based on bigotry, but addressing that is going to be necessary. Ultimately, the economic argument isn’t going to be enough for most people because the idea of the world economy growing is rather abstract.

I’m convinced that open borders are the path to the greatest good for the greatest number, but I doubt that accommodating climate change refugees in my backyard will be to my benefit. And yet I’m still in favor of open borders. The humanitarian angle is important for me and I suspect it is for many others. As Ilya Somin noted during a panel discussion about Open Borders, it wasn’t the economic case for ending Jim Crow that won the day, it was appeals to equality and what’s right.

This graphic novel is worth the small amount of time it takes to breeze through it, and perhaps do so again. It shows what can be done with the medium when you understand it and believe in it. And one can only hope that more people with important ideas take note and expand their horizons in terms of innovative ways to present them. The material has its limitations but that just shows that advocating for open borders isn’t a task for one book. Caplan even says at the end, through his avatar looking somewhat like Uncle Sam, “marketing’s not my specialty. To be honest, I’m hoping you can figure out how to make open borders a reality” [emphasis original].

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