Ideas — 21 Savage: The Problem with Economic Arguments for Open Borders

790,354,783. As of this writing, that is the number of total plays for rapper 21 Savage’s top five songs on Spotify. If listeners valued each play at merely a cent more than what they already pay for it then 21 Savage will have contributed $7,903,547.83 in consumer surplus — a value which is gained by consumers but which they do not pay for — to those listeners. However, for even the most obsessive listener, say someone whose anthem is Bank Account and has played it 1,000 times, the consumer surplus they enjoy is only $10. The central problem facing economic arguments for immigration expansion is that the benefits of immigration are widely dispersed.

This is not a revelation. As early as 1850 Frederic Bastiat was commenting on “what is seen and what is unseen” in economics and the problem of dispersed costs and concentrated benefits in socialism. However, with immigration, the scale of the net benefits are so large that the problem of their dispersion is particularly poignant.

Bryan Caplan, who is the standard bearer of economic arguments for open borders, cites a study showing that totally free migration would “roughly double global GDP.” He offers for comparison that eliminating all trade restrictions, another issue of dispersed benefits and concentrated costs that is hotly debated in libertarian circles, would raise global GDP by only four percent.

So why then don’t we have a world of free migration? Part of the answer is that the benefits that Caplan cites are so widely dispersed that there is rarely a strong enough economic incentive for any individual to act.

This brings us back to rapper 21 Savage. While he might have eight Ms in his bank account according to the eponymous song (his most popular), he will be enjoying those spoils from across the pond if he is deported back to his birth country of England.

21 Savage, whose legal name is She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, has seen his provenance used as fodder for those seeking to attack his supposed lack of authenticity. However, without wading into that quagmire, 21’s case also clearly shows the problem with economic arguments for freer immigration and a potential way forward for proponents of immigration.

Fans who receive consumer surplus from 21 Savage’s music stand in for consumers who benefit from the positive externality of immigration driving down prices. Though the gains to consumers are massive and clear, the benefit to any particular consumer is negligible and tough to see. The same is true for 21’s fans. For any individual fan the consumer surplus would be negligible but for fans as a group, the surplus is substantial. This is the collective action problem of immigration in a nutshell: everyone benefits a little bit but no one benefits enough to justify spending extensive time and resources to try and change the system. The answer, then, cannot lie only, or even primarily, in appeals to economic arguments. Here again, 21 Savage’s case is instructive.

Abraham-Joseph enjoyed an outpouring of celebrity support in the form of social media posts and video testimonials (though this was after an onslaught of memes — 21 was characteristically unphased). After the questions of authenticity were apparently played out, the conversation changed to focus on the moral outrage of immigration restrictionism with rappers making impassioned appeals about 21’s treatment. This vein of argument harkens back to the intensity of the outrage surrounding president Trump’s family separation policy and suggests that the way to solve the economic collective action problem is to move the conversation out of the realm of economics and into the realm of morality.

Here, open borders proponents and immigration activists can learn a valuable lesson from the campaign of gay marriage and marijuana legalizations. In a feature for Reason, Jonathan Rauch tracks how framing the issues in explicitly moral terms, even if that meant using voices that did not necessarily represent the gay community, helped to move the needle on legalization and that the same is true for pot legalization. Rauch, however, also notes that to make moral arguments is to explicitly start a campaign to “re-educate the American public” and that there is no shortcut. In other words, this is a long game.

21 Savage’s fate is yet to be determined but if he prevails it will not be because of well-reasoned arguments about the economics of his content creation. Loosening the draconian restrictions that America imposes on immigration will be about framing the issue in moral terms that resonate with average Americans. The economic gains from immigration are immense and it is important to have those arguments available to withstand criticisms from policy wonks and restrictionist think tanks. Economic arguments, however, (and this is going to be tough for us wonky folks to swallow) should not be how activists appeal to average Americans. That way lies madness or, and perhaps worse, despondency.



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