Where is the Texas of Spain?

Sunday, July 21st, 2019

Bryan Caplan just returned from Spain:

The quickest way to explain Spain to an American: Spain is the California of Europe.  I grew up in Los Angeles, and often found myself looking around and thinking, “This could easily be California.”  The parallel is most obvious for geography — the deserts, the mountains, the coasts.  But it’s also true architecturally; the typical building in Madrid looks like it was built in California in 1975.  And at least in summer, the climates of Spain and California match closely.  Spain’s left-wing politics would also resonate with Californians, but Spain doesn’t seem very leftist by European standards.  Indeed, Spaniards often told me that their parents remain staunch Franco supporters.

He shares some reflections:

1. Overall, Spain was richer and more functional than I expected. The grocery stores are very well-stocked; the worst grocery store I saw in Spain offered higher quality, more variety, and lower prices than the best grocery store I saw in Denmark, Sweden, or Norway. Restaurants are cheap, even in the tourist areas. Almost all workers I encountered did their jobs with a friendly and professional attitude. There is near-zero violent crime, though many locals warned us about pickpockets.

2. The biggest surprise was the low level of English knowledge of the population. Even in tourist areas, most people spoke virtually no English. Without my sons, I would have been reduced to pantomiming (or Google translate) many times a day. Movie theaters were nevertheless full of undubbed Hollywood movies, and signs in (broken) English were omnipresent.

3. I wasn’t surprised by the high level of immigration, but I was shocked by its distribution. While there are many migrants from Spanish America, no single country has sent more than 15% of Spain’s migrants! The biggest source country, to my surprise, is Romania; my wife chatted with fellow Romanians on a near-daily basis. I was puzzled until a Romanian Uber driver told me that a Romanian can attain near-fluent Spanish in 3-4 months. Morocco comes in at #2, but Muslims are less visible in Madrid than in any other European capital I’ve visited.

4. 75% of our Uber drivers were immigrants, so we heard many tales of the immigrant experience. Romanians aside, we had drivers from Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Pakistan. Even the Pakistanis seemed highly assimilated and almost overjoyed to reside in Spain. By the way, Uber in Spain works even better than in the U.S. The median wait time was 3 minutes, and the prices were about one-third less than in the U.S.

5. Refugees from Chavismo were prominent and vocal. One Venezuelan Uber driver was vocally pro-Trump. You might credit Trump’s opposition to Maduro, but the driver said she liked him because “He doesn’t talk like a regular politician.” I wanted to ask, “Couldn’t you say the same about Chavez and Maduro?!” but I was in listening mode.

6. I’ve long been dumbfounded by Spain’s high unemployment rate, which peaked at around 27% during the Great Recession and currently stands at about 15%. Could labor market regulation really be so much worse in Spain than in France or Italy? My chats with local economists — and observation of the labor market — confirmed my skepticism. According to these sources, a lot of officially “unemployed” workers are lying to collect unemployment insurance while they work in the black market.


7. If I didn’t know the history of the Spanish Civil War, I never would have guessed that Spain ever had a militant labor movement. Tipping was even rarer than in France, but sincere devotion to customer service seems higher than in the U.S. Perhaps my sons charmed them with their high-brow Spanish, but I doubt that explains more than a small share of what I saw. A rental car worker apologized for charging me for returning my car with a 95% full tank, adding, “Sorry, but my boss will yell at me if I don’t.”

8. Catalan independence is a weighty issue for both Barcelona and Madrid libertarians. Madrid libertarians say that an independent Catalonia would be very socialist; Barcelona libertarians say the opposite. I found the madrileños slightly more compelling here, but thought both groups were wasting time on this distraction. Libertarians around the world should downplay identity and focus on the policy trinity of deregulating immigration, employment, and housing. (Plus austerity, of course).

9. UFM Madrid Director Gonzalo Melián was originally an architect. We discussed Spanish housing regulation at length, and I walked away thinking that Spain is strangling construction about as severely as the U.S. does.

10. Spanish housing regulation is especially crazy, however, because the country is unbelievably empty. You can see vast unused lands even ten miles from Madrid. The train trip to Barcelona passes through hundreds of miles of desert. Yes, the U.S. has even lower population density, but Spain is empty even in regions where many millions of people would plausibly like to live. Indeed, population density in Spain is actually lower than in the contiguous U.S.

Naturally, Caplan thinks that Spain needs more immigrants:

12. My biggest epiphany: Spain has more to gain from immigration than virtually any other country on Earth. There are almost 500 million native Spanish speakers on Earth — and only 47 million people in Spain. (Never mind all those non-Spanish speakers who can acquire fluency in less than a year!) Nearly all of these Spanish speakers live in countries that are markedly poorer and more dangerous than Spain, so vast numbers would love to migrate. And due to the low linguistic and cultural barriers, the migrants are ready to hit the ground running. You can already see migration-fueled growth all over Spain, but that’s only a small fraction of Spain’s potential.


14. How can immigration to Spain be such a free lunch? Simple: Expanding a well-functioning economy is far easier than fixing a poorly-functioning economy. The Romanian economy, for example, has low productivity. Romanian people, however, produce far more in Spain than at home. Give them four months to learn the language, and they’re ready to roll.

15. According to my sources, Spain’s immigration laws stubbornly willfully defy this economic logic. When illegal migrants register with the government, they immediately become eligible for many government benefits. Before migrants can legally work, however, they must wait three years. Unsurprisingly, then, you see many people who look like illegal immigrants working informally on the streets, peddling bottled water, sunglasses, purses, and the like. I met one family that was sponsoring Venezuelan refugees. Without their sponsorship, the refugees would basically be held as prisoners in a government camp — or even get deported to Venezuela. Why not flip these policies, so migrants can work immediately, but wait three years to become eligible for government benefits? Who really thinks that people have a right to the labor of others, but no right to labor themselves?


Where is the Texas of Spain? I don’t know, but that’s where the future is.


  1. Wang Wei Lin says:

    #6…Trump is no different than Chavez or Maduro. Stopped reading.

  2. Ezra says:

    Puerto Rico. That talk of giving Puerto Rico back to Spain was just talk? The idea might not be so bad? Puerto Rico would become part of the EU with lots of benefits.

  3. Albion says:

    Once heard someone say that the problem with housing regulations in Spain is often the person who adjudicates on matters of local planning, permissions and so on is someone who has an active interest in the outcome.

    I think this person said the man who blocked a purchase of some land for an extension wanted the land more for his own purposes, so decided against the application.

  4. Graham says:

    Always fascinating to see what appears to be libertarian thinking in a relatively pure form applied to unusual contexts.

    This particular cluster of policies:

    “Libertarians around the world should downplay identity and focus on the policy trinity of deregulating immigration, employment, and housing. (Plus austerity, of course).”

    doesn’t necessarily go together well in any way that will win votes from the same electorates.

  5. Graham says:

    If Spain would take PR back, it would certainly be to Puerto Ricans’ advantage to insist on being part of the EU, but it doesn’t always work that way with detached possessions.

    The British Crown Dependencies like the Channel Islands and Man are not part of the UK or of the EU, though there are separate laws and agreements on them. I think some of the Scandinavian countries have nearby possessions or even integral parts of their states that are kept out of the EU for one reason or another.

    Overseas possessions are rarely in the EU. I’m not sure about the French ones — they are big on the indivisibility of the Republic, even globally, but not sure all their islands are in the EU.

  6. CVLR says:

    Numbers one and two are an amusing juxtaposition; one might almost suspect causality.

    The Spaniards are of some of the finest stock in the world. With a handful of men armed with medieval technology they conquered most of the New World south of the Rio Grande. Why do none of these oversocialized academics ever suggest that the Spaniards pursue the national policy of producing a population surplus enough to begin exporting future conquistadors?


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