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Immigration issues

As regular readers here know, immigration is an issue that even people who are libertarians with a strong hostility to state barriers to movement disagree about. The nub of the issue can be expressed thus: immigration+welfare state+weak indigenous culture = social discord. Or: immigration+free market capitalism+strong sense of civil society = strong, dynamic country.

Over at the CATO think tank in Washington DC, a number of writers, such as Bryan Caplan, Daniel Griswold, Richard K Vedder and Joel Kotkin argue that immigration, particularly without the distortions and false incentives of a big welfare state, is a force for good and an expression of the desire of people to better their condition not just materially, but in other ways, and that believers in liberty ought to be on their side. In as much as immigration, legal or otherwise, causes certain costs, then there are ways of dealing with this other than a simple blanket ban, which is what some people, mostly, but not exclusively on the right, are calling for.

This is an impressive collection of essays and provides a bit of a counterweight to cultural pessimists, some of whom, ironically, are immigrants themselves.

Another good thing about this collection of essays is that with the exception of Caplan, I had not heard about any of these authors before, so I was pleased to find a large assembly of such insightful writers to follow in the future.

Here is a paragraph from one of the essays, by Joshua C. Hall, Benjamin J. VanMetre, and Richard K. Vedder:

When examining these various views on immigration it’s important not to fall subject to the all too common misperception that one’s immigrant status dictates one’s position in the debate, viewing immigrants as pro-immigration and nonimmigrants as anti-immigration. This is clearly not the case as Brimelow (1999), Hoppe (1998) and Borjas (1999) are some of the most prominent skeptics of immigration and are immigrants themselves – anti-immigrant immigrants.

In fact, the anti-immigrant immigrant is not a new phenomenon. It stems from the growing instinct for individuals to think that their generation is the Great Generation and that those who follow are somehow inferior. So it goes with immigration. One can speculate that the individuals who arrived on the Mayflower lamented newcomers arriving to Massachusetts on subsequent boats in the 1620s as lacking the motivation, the ingenuity, or some other positive attribute allegedly possessed in abundance by those arriving earlier.

In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin lamented the allegedly deleterious effects of new German arrivals to Philadelphia by disparagingly speaking of how Pennsylvania was being “Germanized.”

In the mid-19th century, the great American inventor Samuel F. B. Morse denounced new arrivals from Ireland and spoke of the dangers to America arising from the Roman Catholic faith of the newcomers. A half-century later, Woodrow Wilson pronounced that new arrivals from Italy and eastern Europe were of an inferior stock compared with those coming earlier from the northwestern part of the same continent. So it is not surprising when Borjas (1999) and Brimelow (1999) lament the arrivals to America after 1965 as inferior to those coming in the 1950s or early 1960s. The question that ultimately arises then is, if conventional political ideology does not explain differences in opinion on immigration then what does?

I should add that these essays have a strongly American flavour, but some if not all of the arguments the authors make apply to certain other countries as well.

11 comments to Immigration issues

  • Rob H

    Agree, but a blanket ban or skills based and English language test is essential while the perverse incentives exist.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Rob H, such conditions are mentioned in the articles, but there are others as well for dealing with the incentives problem, including charging people who want to live in a country, or bans on receiving public welfare/other services for a specified period, etc. In fact, there are all kinds of ways of dealing with the supposed negatives of immigration short of a ban.

    What I find particularly refreshing about this is that here are a collection of hard headed essays from people who don’t start off from the usual “we are all doomed” default position that animates a lot of commentary these days. Even Mark Steyn’s After America, which is great to read and contains a lot of truths, tends to fall into this trap a bit too easily for my liking.

  • Perhaps more time should be spent arguing against the perverse incentives (which are generally Bad Things in and of themselves -particularly welfarism) and less time spent getting tied up in knots about immigration. One hardly ever sees people ‘on our side ‘ in, for example, the drug debate conceding immediately that ‘all the while artificial scarcity exists and the drugs market is exclusively in the hands of criminals a ban on such substances is essential.’ It would make no sense, for one thing.

  • James

    I think part of the problem is that some people/cultures really are more productive than others, which makes thinking about immigration in terms of abstract political ideology harder. I recall a study from a few years ago that showed the number of patant applications by non-citizen immigrants to America. No Latin American country even made the top 20, despite supplying the vast bulk of immigrants to the States.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Whoops, I could not agree more on your analysis. The problem is that with immigration, there are economic, cultural and social issues that gain more or less prominence depending on who is making the argument. But I agree that it does a lot of good to re-frame the issue, just as needs to be done on things like drugs, education and many other issues.

  • BigFatFlyingBloke

    I would assume that is because the vast majority of immigrants from Latin America will be going into menial jobs in the catering, hotel service and residential service industries; which are not exactly positions which you would expect to generate many patents.

  • the other rob

    I read Stuart Anderson’s piece on the mechanics of the USA’s immigration system. It appears to be a fairly comprehensive cook’s tour of the bureaucracy, but misses the mark by failing to observe the extent to which the Byzantine system is, in many respects, primarily a job creation programme for government workers.

    As one who has gone through the system, from England, via a Green Card, to the US naturalization process I have observed at every turn inconsistency, arbitrariness but most of all, onerous requirements which serve no conceivable purpose except as make-work for employees of USCIS.

    For example, prior to my citizenship interview, I was required to make a 600 mile round trip to have my fingerprints taken (for the third time). However, no fingerprints were taken at interview/testing, so the requirement did nothing to validate the identity of the person sitting the citizenship test (which is, in itself, something of a joke) and my prints were already on file for the purposes of any criminal background check.

    Similarly, when making an enquiry, I counted three people who were employed to handle my question – none of whom did anything productive. No answer was given, of course, save for content-free boilerplate.

    I could give many more examples, but the trend is clear – entire offices staffed with government workers taking fingerprints that are never used, call centres full of staff playing “pass the parcel” with enquiries, so that they can all log an action – it’s nothing but make-work.

  • RRS

    There is a natural tendency to focus on “National” experiences with what has been for some time a phenomenon of huge flows and movements of peoples, world-wide.

    Though the flows have slowed somewhat recently, the demographic factors are still in place, and will impact the changes in the internal organizations of the various social orders that make up what we call “Nations.”

    These issues, arising from the incursions (invasions?) of “outsiders” present us with a particular aspect of what constitutes nationalism.

    In effect, nationalism is coming to have a different meaning to its territorial occupants

  • veryretired

    I recall a survey taken several years ago around the world in which people were asked if they would like to move, and where.

    A substantial number, possibly a majority, of those who wanted to go somewhere stated that they would like to go to the US.

    Sorry, folks, just can’t do it.

    It may sound good in an essay about life in a wonderful world where everyone has a good education and is committed to individual freedom and the Bill of Rights, and just wants to be a hard working citizen, but here, in the real world of multi-culti tribalism, and endless government services and mandates, it just won’t fly.

    I was at a seminar once about this question, and the two well meaning, oh-so-sensitive types running the thing were going on and on about the terrible immigration policies of the US. So I asked them, well, which nations have so much better policies and tolerance that we could emulate them?

    After a pause, they conceded that no other nation on earth accepts the number and variety of refugees and immigrants that the US does.

    Pull the beam out of your own eye.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    There was an article a few months back stating my country Singapore as the most desired destination of would-be immigrants relative to its size.

    I have to agree somewhat with veryretired: sorry folks, there’s simply a limit on how much space we have, and how much social tension we can tolerate.

  • Simon Cranshaw

    I have some questions for those who would support the restrictions of movement of peoples, or the restriction of the right to work.

    Do you consider such policies to be beneficial for the world or just for the country imposing such restrictions? If beneficial only for that country, why do they care more about the people born there than the people born outside? If such rules are better for the world, would some large countries, the US for example, be better if divided up with some internal borders to reduce relocations?