My Immigration Dilemma

As someone who’s won the citizenship lottery (read: American born), I’m very reluctant to comment on immigration. But I do believe in certain mild restrictions on the influx of new arrivals, so here’s my dilemma in a nutshell.

I basically agree with Gregory Clark’s thesis in A Farewell to Alms, ably summarized here by my distinguished co-blogger. My question for Clark (and others) is simple: If our national success is the product of centuries of social, political, and economic development, how long will it take for poorer countries to emulate our model? I find this question particularly vexing because even the West isn’t quite sure what works and what doesn’t. We know that capitalism, a dollop of social welfare spending, and representative democracy function pretty well (compared to the alternatives, at least), but nobody is quite sure how we got here (High levels of social trust, you say? Economic dynamism? Well, where do those characteristics come from?). We’re not completely clueless, but historians have been debating what makes societies tick since Gibbon blamed Christianity for the Fall of Rome, and we’ve yet to distill this process into an exact science

So the West is both successful and difficult to emulate (I suspect this would be true even if we could identify the exact precursors to liberal democratic capitalism). This suggests that the best poverty alleviation program is to let as many people across the border as possible to share the fruits of our historical good fortune. On the other hand, the frailty and complexity of the Western model suggests that a massive influx of foreigners could place an unbearable strain on the social, cultural, and political norms that allow the United States to function. In short, the very complexity that makes us so difficult to emulate also makes it difficult to absorb wave after wave of new arrivals.

I know my thoughts on this subject have very little to do with the political debate over immigration . But I think it help explains why I sympathize with some of the more mild advocates of restrictionism, who don’t scapegoat Mexican immigrants for imaginary crime sprees but are concerned with preserving the United States’ political, social, and economic culture. Bryan Caplan has this about right:

A few liberals – and many libertarians – literally advocate open borders.  I recognize that immigration is the greatest foreign aid program in human history, and I sympathize with the plight of would-be immigrants in the Third World.  Most immigrants – legal or not – are nice people.  But open borders is crazy.   It seriously risks killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

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23 thoughts on “My Immigration Dilemma

  1. Of course, it’s unclear whether Caplan believes that argument himself. For the record, I certainly do.
    Clark’s thesis is actually more subversive than even that the developed world has a miraculous set of favorable institutions. He thinks it’s the people that matter. Jason in his Cato review called it “breeding” (which I think may be one why Jason was generally hostile, since it suggests a possible genetic cause).
    Further support for the view that “open borders is crazy” comes from David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, which teaches that settlers and immigrants bring their habits and folkways with them. It’s rather optimistic to think that the U.S. could take in a huge influx of third world people but still keep out third world ways.
    It’s true that immigration is a great deal for immigrants, though we should keep in mind that the correlation between wealth and actual happiness is rather modest (which is not to say that relieving extreme poverty is not a good thing). But, as I said in my post, I’m not yet prepared to jettison the view that American policy should be made for the benefit of Americans.

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    • @Austin Bramwell, Albion’s Seed is a great book but you are over working it a bit. Of course people bring traditions and ways with them when they migrate which is pretty obvious. But it is a stretch to take the conclusions of AS as true now, although they may have well described various cultures a century ago.There is no agreement that a great work of history can that accurately describe the entire panoply of human cultural variation such as we have seen.

      An obvious retort to your point is that America has absorbed many different people and their traditions. Certainly Irish and Jewish traditions were considered alien decades ago but not so now. Immigrants in America have shown an incredible ability to assimalate over a generation or two. Global communications and flights may slow down the process of assimilation but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence people won’t do so.

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      • @gregiank, You are quite right on all these points. There are certainly reasons to think that the original Anglo settlors’ cultural influence is much greater than that of later immigrants. I only cite Fischer as “further support.” However (i) Fischer at a minimum shows that extent of the folkways carried over at least initially is quite large, (ii) assimilation is never 100% (there is on the contrary quite a lot of ethnic loyalty and cultural retention or non-assimilation even among some 19th century immigrant groups who have been here a long time), and (iii) assimilation is a two-way street such that the dominant culture itself needs to change.

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  2. Will–

    While trying to maintain my policy of not getting involved in comment threads on immigration (an issue on which my knowledge base vastly exceeds my tolerance for disagreement, which is never a good combination for the Internet), I’d just like to say that I really appreciate your recognition that the part of this question you find interesting doesn’t map readily on to the day-to-day political debate. On a lot of issues, particularly this one (maybe because in this sliver of the blogosphere some of the only people discussing it consistently are the open-borders libertarians), people often find themselves seizing on an issue via its most philosophically-interesting handle, and pretending that this is either itself a viable policy option or (worse) that their philosophical conclusions are perfectly aligned with one of the policy options currently on the table.

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  3. I think the honest question on “open borders” deals with the difference between Utopia and the cost of doing business. If the borders are open then how do we as a society pay for all the additional people (i.e., building new schools to house all the new children, teacher’s salaries, hospital costs, etc.). Just as we need to stop being the world’s police force (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.), we need to identify those who receive the benefits of America and those who must be turned away. I would like to give to all but I do not have all to give, nor does our nation have an unlimited amount of money to spend on non-citizens much less our current citizens.

    Our current leaders must make very difficult decisions to limit benefits to secure survival of our economy. I believe the first step is to bring our military home and develop a secure border. Just as optimism is the worst form of contraceptive, so too it is the worst form of political policy.

    Food for Thought
    If you are Hungry

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  4. “Immigration is the best foreign aid program in history” is the major problem with the illegals that are flooding the blue collar world; it is also the best aid program for the elites. What could be better than owning a factory and having 10 applicants for every job? There was an article in the paper last year about a chicken plant in the south that was raided by ICE. The owner was complaining about how he could not get American workers that would stay even though he had raised everybody’s salary to nine dollars an hour. There was a raid in Tennessee year before last and one of the contractors that hired only legals said that was the best thing that had happened to him because, on the average, the illegals would work for about four dollars an hour less than the Americans. So you open border types can talk all you want about how illegals help, but I am not convinced. What I see the illegals doing is finishing off the middle class and it won’t be long before America is exactly like Mexico–94% of the money in the hands of 5% of the population.

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  5. I am broadly liberal on the subject of immigration, but the primary argument that I cannot shake is wage-suppression. I am increasingly concerned about the ability of low-skill Americans to make a sufficient wage for what we consider to be an acceptable standard of living.

    On the other hand, even if I were in favor of a moratorium on immigration, I am pretty pessimistic that we would be able to put a stop to it without having to resort to measures and tactics I cannot come close to supporting. And I would rather have 1 million entering the year and being relatively welcome here than limiting it a half-million or even quarter-million and having 40 million Hispanics as resentful, second-class citizens. There are times when trying and failing is worse than not trying at all.

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  6. If our national success is the product of centuries of social, political, and economic development, how long will it take for poorer countries to emulate our model?

    Well given that “our model” was built on centuries of invading poorer countries and stealing their land and resources and/or enslaving their people….probably a long time.

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    • @JosephFM, I don’t deny that American history involves a lot of thinly-veiled land grabs. But I don’t think that straightforward imperialism has much to do with the social, political, and cultural norms that make the United States (and other, less aggressive, Western countries) work.

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      • @Will,

        Really? So, you don’t think that enjoying the benefits of centuries of empire is actually a large part of what brought those other countries to a point of comfort and development wherein they have the luxury of being “less aggressive”, or indeed of developing the ideas underlying modernity?

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        • @JosephFM, I think you can point to plenty of European countries – Denmark, Sweden, and Finland immediately come to mind – that didn’t benefit from colonial land grabs and are still incredibly prosperous. You seem to be suggesting that imperialism = wealth. I think causation runs the other way (ie wealth allows for imperialism). For example, I’ve read a few interesting studies that suggest the British Empire was an enormous financial drag on Great Britain proper. England’s overseas colonies were only sustainable because it enjoyed such enormous material wealth to begin with.

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  7. I think an issue that is being overlooked in this comment thread is that our current policy directly encourages illegal immigration over legal immigration and breeds resentment and reluctance to assimilate. It’s expensive (about 1,000 dollars, 60 or 70 pages of paperwork in English, about a week’s worth of time taken off work over the course of four or five months) and difficult enough for me, a U.S. Citizen, trying to bring my family, who are not U.S. citizens, into the States so I can attend medical school.

    Now imagine the path of legal immigration for citizens of the developing world.

    If I’m a Mexican national trying to support my family and I can sneak into the U.S. and get paid less than minimum wage but still far more than I’d be making back home, I’d have absolutely no moral qualms doing it, and I’d find it very difficult not to develop an unrelenting hatred for the real or imaginary forces that made me break the law, that daily jeopardize the safety of me and remittances for my family, and that now loudly rails against and scapegoats me and the other poorest, most marginalized members of the American economy. And I’d be righteous.

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  8. “Securing the Border” and “Enforcement First” sounds nice and fits neatly on bumper stickers. However, the net costs of that enforcement far outweigh the net costs / burden on our economy of “illegal” immigrants.

    Our current immigration policy is unfair, immoral, skews market forces, hinders high skilled laborers, promotes low skilled laborers, disrupts families, fosters criminal activity…

    Quite simply the current legal structure for immigration is an abject failure.

    If a person can arrive in this country on their own, get a job, pay the same taxes as other residents, then they should be given a work visa / residency status. If they come to this country to get an education, the should be given a permanent visa when they get the degree, and fast tracked to citizenship should they choose it.

    Any casual student of American history and immigration would realize that all “limited immigration” arguments boil down to one form of xenophobia or another. No amount of blather on the “limit them people, but not these people” camp can cover up their racist bigotry.

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