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.