I have been on the fence on the possibility of greatly increased immigration for a while. It seems stupidly nationalistic to not allow individuals to live and work where they please, but then I am also cognizant of the artificial incentives to migrate created by social programs and the dangers to social stability that might exist (if existing citizens see the migrants as “others” and do not identify them with the national community).

I mentioned before a worry about whether good government might suffer. Actually, it now seems to me the opposite would probably be true. Making entry and exit from a country as easy as possible allows people to do more voting with their feet (which is better than voting with their ballot, in my view). I also must concede that I have a hidden agenda. I would hope that as society becomes more pluralistic and the “big tent” gets packed, people turn away from government solutions to problems. In light of how the welfare state complicates immigration, maybe the welfare state needs to go — not the immigration.

And is the threat to social stability really so great? We handled more immigrants, as a percentage of the existing population, back around 1900 (graph). The percentage at that time was around 15%. Now it is 10%. There was some unrest and violence in reaction to immigration back then, but it is unclear how likely such problems are now, given changes in values among natives. (That’s putting it nicely. Just look at how we treated Asian immigrants. It is appalling and definitely makes me less proud to be an American.) Given that the foreign born percentage is in the same ballpark now as it was at the turn of the century and that we don’t see a backlash of the same magnitude, I would speculate that another 5% wouldn’t cause much trouble. That would mean another 17.6 immigrants, if they all came in a lump sum tomorrow.

Lifting 17.6 million people out of poverty is a piddling figure compared to the majority of the world’s population that could really see a dramatic improvement in living standards if they migrated here. But it would be far from trivial to improve the lot of millions. Perhaps those living in the very worst conditions could be selected. It might do a lot more good than our foreign aid programs.

Bringing the rest of the rich world into the picture makes it quite a bit rosier. According to this, about 1.2 billion live in Europe, Northern America, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. I don’t know what the percentage foreign born in all of these countries is (I imagine it’s probably higher in Europe, quite low in Japan), but if they could take in 5% of their current population, that would be 60 million lifted out of poverty. Not bad.

I may actually be making a fuss for nothing, since the trend indicates that the percent foreign born in the US is rising rapidly. Perhaps it will reach 15% again, or maybe even a higher percentage. Plenty of migration is happening into Europe, from what I understand, and perhaps those countries will open up further if there is a new EU treaty.