One last salvo on immigration

Mark’s points about the relationship between American dynamism and immigration are well-taken. Again, I’d like to stress that I’m endorsing an exceedingly mild form restrictionism – perhaps a system that expands immigration quotas for Third World countries not adjacent to our border while limiting the number of new arrivals from Latin America. That said, I think Mark dramatically understates the importance (and fragility) of certain “core American values” (for lack of a less Gingrichian phrase).

The genius of American assimilation is that we’re very good at absorbing and commercializing immigrant cultures’ cosmetic features – witness our shared affection for bastardized Chinese cuisine, Henna tattoos, and globe-trotting pop stars. Among other things, this has the effect of making the United States open and welcoming to newcomers without dramatically altering our most important features. I don’t doubt that there have been dramatic changes in popular culture throughout American history, but I like to think there’s a certain permanence (or at least continuity) among the cultural and social norms that make the United States tick.

What are “core American values?” At the risk of sounding like the “Issues” page on Gingrich2012.com (G-d save us), I think we can tentatively identify certain consistent features that undergird the United States’ success: An entrepreneurial bent, a faith in hard work and meritocracy, a high level of social trust that encourages cohesion, charity, and reasonably efficient government, robust patriotism, and an enduring belief in liberty, equality, and opportunity.

I happen to think that nearly every human being on the planet is born with the faculties to comprehend and embrace this (admittedly ill-defined) value system. But these norms are learned, not innate, and I also think it’s exceedingly naive to assume they’re as easily transmissible as a taste for American popular culture.

One final point: Mark expresses some skepticism of the idea that American values aren’t easily adopted. Conclusive evidence is hard to come by for this sort of thing, but I’ve always thought that the relative absence of liberal democratic capitalism outside the Euro-American core is a telling indicator of how difficult it is for non-Westerners to adopt Western values.

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13 thoughts on “One last salvo on immigration

  1. “Last salvo”? This is the League! There’s no such thing as a “last salvo”!

    Anywho, l get your point with this quote:
    “An entrepreneurial bent, a faith in hard work and meritocracy, a high level of social trust that encourages cohesion, charity, and reasonably efficient government, robust patriotism, and an enduring belief in liberty, equality, and opportunity.”

    ….But a few quibbles:
    1. I think the overwhelming majority of immigrants (and certainly most immigrants from developing nations), almost by definition, do have an “entrepreneurial bent” and a “faith in hard work and meritocracy.” The simple act of trying to move permanently to a new country requires a strong willingness to take risks, and especially economic risks, without much hope of salvation if you fall. Indeed, I would expect that one’s ability to garner sufficient funding to make the journey requires a certain deeply-engrained entrepreneurial spirit and an equally well-engrained belief that, if one works hard enough and smart enough, one can emigrate to a place where a real improvement in quality of life is possible.

    2. I think you’re on to something with the emphasis on a ” high level of social trust that encourages cohesion, charity, and reasonably efficient government.” But this is where my comparison with the Eastern European immigration is most important, I think. I’d argue that the amount of social cohesion experienced by the average Latino immigrant nowadays is significantly greater than that experienced by the Eastern European immigrants of the late-19th/early-2oth century, who had to deal with the unspeakably horrific threat of pogroms, the effects of partition, racial discrimination, and the upheaval of an abrupt transfer from agrarian serfdom to industrialization. They didn’t even really have experience with Mickey Mouse democracy. The lack of social cohesion and trust was thus as much or more of a basis for emigration than economics. By contrast, social cohesion is not, AFAIK, a primary motivation at all for many immigrants today. And, while corruption and lack of trust in government is certainly a big problem in Latin America, the concept of democratic governance at least has a growing track record at this point.

    3. Regarding patriotism as a “core American value,” I’m not at all sure I can agree. This is, after all, a country founded on a rebellion against the Mother Country, to say nothing of the old saw that before the Civil War, Americans generally referred to the US as “the United States are” rather than “the United States is…” Then there was the Civil War itself, of course. I understand that “patriotism” and “nationalism” are two distinctly different concepts, but hopefully you get the point.

    4. Lastly, you reference ” an enduring belief in liberty, equality, and opportunity.” I think emphasizing this creates a dilemma for your position. If, as you suggest, this is something that must be learned from experience, then the question becomes “what experience bolsters an enduring belief in liberty, equality, and opportunity”? If the answer is “living in a liberal Western democracy,” then we get back to that same comparison between the Eastern European immigrants of 1880-1920, who were neither emigrating from liberal societies nor democratic societies nor Western societies, whereas Latino countries are quite liberal and democratic by comparison and certainly more Western in outlook thanks to a history dominated by the Spanish and American spheres of influence.

    Finally, I think you misinterpret my point about the Western system. It’s not that it’s easy to replicate or easily adopted – to the contrary, I fully agree with your point about the Euro-American core; I’d even argue that it’s specifically a Western European-American core, as the Eastern European countries that seem to be best adapting to the post-Soviet world are countries that before 1945 had historically fallen as much or more within the Western sphere of influence than in the Eastern sphere of influence. However, just because the system is difficult to create does not mean that it is particularly frail once created and established.

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    • @Mark Thompson, “This is, after all, a country founded on a rebellion against the Mother Country,”
      The wording of the Declaration of Independence goes after the king and his actions. The wording makes it clear that Americans were concerned about keeping their “ancient liberites” – English liberties. Rebelling against the Mother Country was the effect of that. It wasn’t the point of that.

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  2. With reference to “American values”, what we consider those values have been constructed with the various waves of immigrants. The entire idea of a melting pot implies that we have absorbed various groups of people. There aren’t pre-existing American values that weren’t shaped by people from other places.

    Its a bit dodgy to talk about non-western peoples not developing western values since western imperialism has deeply affected most of rest of the world. Latin America is not exactly a home for liberal democracies but we have exercised a heavy hand there. Or as another example, Iran was developing a democracy in the 50’s before we and the brits decided we didn’t think it was a good idea.

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  3. My sister has worked for years in “non-western” countries (India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Morocco for the last four years) and she’s commented before that the really important idea that’s lacking in many of those places is transparency. Corruption is expected. There’s quite a bit of that in western countries as well, but she says it’s at a whole other level.

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  4. As soon as you’ve codified those “certain consistent factors,” you’ve undermined the small-l liberalism and Enlightenment values that, I take it, you’re endorsing here.

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      • @Simon K,

        The problem comes down to what one wants.

        A fairly homogeneous culture allows a couple of things… one is that most folks don’t mind if other folks are on the dole for a while. “Hey, everybody needs a helping hand from time to time, there but for the grace of God go I, etc…” becomes “I can’t believe those people come here and immediately start taking money out of my pocket” when there is a substantial difference in culture.

        The other thing that a homogeneous culture is likely to do is instill a degree of prior restraint among folks who have access to the robust social safety net. If you have people who have been raised to play an iterated prisoner’s dilemma game for a long, long time and have them play against folks raised to play each iteration of the prisoner’s dilemma as if it were the only one anyone is ever going to play… the latter culture is going to start creating some *SERIOUS* static.

        If multiculturalism means that pretty much any given culture is cool, any given way to play the prisoner’s dilemma is cool, one can see how a given government would want to protect its citizens somewhat.

        The two best ways to do that are to only allow particular ways of playing the prisoner’s dilemma into the country (closed immigration) *OR* to make it so that the citizens have less at risk (a much weaker social safety net).

        And, of course, a robust social safety net works best when it is seen as good and useful by everyone in the country, even those who pay the most for it while getting the least benefit… which goes back to the other two options.

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      • @Murali, the problem is that folks think that the only one of those three that they have any say in is the immigration one… and they do, for the most part.

        They can open up or turn off the H1-B visa spigot. They can even pretend that they’re “protecting American jobs” by doing so.

        They know that they can’t touch the welfare state (children are dying, etc).

        They know that they can’t touch multiculturalism (racism, etc).

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        • @Jaybird, It depends on how you define your multiculturalism. If we restrict for socio economic factors with some general agreement on freedoms/culture, we can have people of all colors that roughly share our priorities. Limited multiculturalism, or non diverse multiculturalism perhaps.

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  5. A possible answer to “American Values” might be found in the writings of Adam Smith and his Wealth of Nations. The middle class was formed and maintained by the “division of labor”. Without a middle class there is no distribution of wealth (not just money, but homes, business, services, goods, etc.) and as such: no middle class results in the “have” and “have nots”. Is America completely up-to-speed in this – no. However, we are one of a very few countries where you can work hard, become educated, become responsible and truly “make it” – look at the President, founder of CNN, Warren Buffet, or simply the small business owners in your neighborhood! Talk to the family that owns the local cleaners and doing the right thing regardless of the situation, working hard (not a sense of entitlement), getting an education and applying yourself – this is the American Values. No middle class, no America.

    Illegal is illegal – civilized societies are based on absolutes. If it is ok for an illegal alien to work, receive benefits and not pay taxes, then you have no ground to stand on with someone illegally removes your property (called stealing) without paying for it.

    Food for Thought if you are Hungry

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  6. As far as the point that American/Western/Liberal Democratic values are hard to adopt.

    I think it’s a false analogy to compare how well native people in their native countries adopt western values, versus the people who actively seek to come here.

    Of course it’s going to be hard to go into someone else’s house and tell them they would be a lot better off if they did x, y, and z. But if they come knocking on yours wanting to live with you, I think there’s a much better chance they are looking to adopt the whole enchilada.

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