A Guilty Elite: Immigration Beyond Economics

VDARE.com Note: This was originally published in Chronicles Magazine, December 2014, (without links) and is used with permission.

America’s immigration enthusiasts, which is to say her entire ruling class, have such untrammeled access to the mainstream media that they are able to launch obviously absurd memes in shamelessly coordinated fashion. Thus, in the wake of the Republican triumph in the 2014 midterm elections—which of course had no effect on them at all; being an immigration enthusiast (to adapt the old movie Love Story) means never having to say you’re sorryThe New Republic ran A Radical Solution to Global Income Inequality: Make the U.S. More Like Qatar (November 6), by two University of Chicago academics, Eric A. Posner [Email him] and Glen Weyl.  [Email him] They argued, seemingly with straight faces, that First World countries have a moral duty to admit Third World immigrants approaching levels seen in Persian Gulf states like Qatar (upward of 80 percent). (The illustration above is what they used for this vision of America.)

09-VIEW-master315[1] The New York Times then published A Strategy for Rich Countries: Absorb More Immigrants (November 8), by the George Mason University libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, [Email him] making an almost identical argument (with the carton at the right) this time because recent projections suggest that the global population may not, after all, be peaking out; and wealth needs to be shared.

(That bit about population not peaking out is really interesting.  For years, immigration enthusiasts like the late Ben Wattenberg have been saying that immigration into the United States should not be cut because it would slow all by itself as global population peaked out.  Now, the opposite condition is being claimed.  Problems change, but the solution is always the same: more immigration!)

As a lifelong financial journalist and a battle-scarred veteran of the immigration wars, I know from bitter experience that, although everyone claims to be interested in what the dismal science has to say about immigration, actually they’re not interested in it at all.  They really want to talk about, or more commonly emote about, race.

However, for the record: What Posner, Weyl, and Cowen are proposing is nuts.  For more than 20 years, the consensus—the consensus—among labor economists has been that the immense inflow into the United States since immigration was reignited, after a 40-year lull, by Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 Immigration Act is of virtually no benefit, in aggregate, to native-born Americans.  Immigration does increase output (GDP) in varying degrees.  (In the case of unskilled immigrants, the increase is often minuscule.)  But essentially all of that is captured by the immigrants themselves, through wages.

In other words, America is being transformed for nothing.

Immigration does affect native-born Americans economically, however, by causing a dramatic redistribution of income: It shifts two to three percent of GDP from labor to capital, by beating down wages.  So policy-driven increases in immigration are in effect a subsidy to the owners of capital.  This offers a crude but unfortunately accurate Marxist explanation for the class nature of the current debate, and of the nefarious role of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Thus, what the Posner-Weyl-Cowen meme proposes might marginally increase global GDP.  And it might improve the incomes of the Third World immigrants themselves.  But its impact on the incomes of most First World workers—that, of course, includes U.S. citizens—would be undeniably devastating.

Beyond economics—that is to say, to anyone other than a dogmatic libertarian—it’s obvious that the Posner-Weyl-Cowen proposal is a recipe for social conflict and utter disaster.  As the brilliant and demoniacally energetic VDare.com writer Steve Sailer noted sarcastically on TNR’s “Radical Solution” comment thread,

“Perhaps one wealthy country should test run this plan first.  The easiest way to test Posner and Weyl’s plan would be for Israel to cut a 10 foot wide hole in one of those giant razor wire border fences they’ve built over the last few years to keep poor black immigrants out.

“I look forward to The New Republic publishing Professor Posner and Weyl’s detailed plan for testing Open Borders by turning Israel into Qatar.”

The key to the Posner-Weyl-Cowen position, I believe, is Cowen’s claim in the NYT that

Developed countries that can absorb new immigrants at a modest cost should have relatively bright futures.  They will help enable a rebalancing of population that will help the entire planet.  In contrast, developed countries with relatively inflexible notions of national identity, and thus with strict immigration policies, may shrink in population and lose influence.

Ultimately, then, what Posner, Weyl, and Cowen are saying here is that national identity simply doesn’t matter.  And, of course, the interests of ordinary Americans (or of any ordinary citizen of the great nations of the First World) simply don’t matter, either.

For nearly 30 years, I’ve been trying to get through libertarians’ thick heads the concept of the “metamarket”—the cultural prerequisites for capitalism.  Admittedly, I’m just a journalist and don’t have tenure anywhere. Nevertheless, here’s what the University of Chicago’s Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman (got that?) told me 26 years ago (“Why Liberalism Is Obsolete, Forbes, December 12, 1988):

[MF:] Let me summarize my own view.  Private property is essential, but it’s not enough.  Private markets are essential, but they’re not enough.  Free private markets are the critical element.  India is a non-free private market.  In order to set up a business, you have to get a license from the government.  The easiest way to get rich in India is to have an in with the government, so they’ll give you a license to get foreign exchange . . .

[PB:] For example, we say the Chinese are clever people, but, as you point out, they never had any tradition of democracy or anything that resembles classical liberalism.  And they had this historical episode where they apparently stagnated for a thousand years.  What happened there?

[MF:] I don’t know.  Why has the world, as a whole, stagnated most of the time?  See, you go back to the excerpt you read to me from Capitalism and Freedom.  [“The typical state of mankind is tyranny, servitude and misery.”]  The history of the world is the history of tyranny and misery and stagnation.  Periods of growth are exceptional, very exceptional.

[PB:] You’ve mentioned what you see as the institutional prerequisites for capitalism.  Do you think there might be cultural prerequisites, too?

[MF:] Oh, yes.  For example, truthfulness.  The success of Lebanon as a commercial entrepôt was to a significant degree because the merchants’ word could be trusted.  It cut down transaction costs.

It’s a curious fact that capitalism developed and has really only come to fruition in the English-speaking world.  It hasn’t really made the same progress even in Europe—certainly not in France, for instance.  I don’t know why this is so, but the fact has to be admitted.

[PB:] Does this mean that capitalism may not necessarily be exportable?

[MF:] Beyond a certain point, it may not be.  It’s been successful in Hong Kong, but there the limited-government framework was provided by the British—at the same time, incidentally, that they were depriving their own people of its benefits!  Whether the Chinese themselves can generate that framework is very much an open question.

Posner, Weyl, and Cowen are not socialists.  Posner is the son, and putative intellectual heir, of Judge Richard Posner, a key figure in the Law and Economics movement; Weyl, widely regarded as a future Nobel laureate, claims Milton Friedman is “the thinker that has most shaped me”; Cowen is well known as the coauthor (with his George Mason colleague Alex Tabarrok) of the libertarian blog Marginal Revolution.  Nevertheless, nationality and culture are nonissues to them.

Intellectually, this libertarian lacuna has been to me—no doubt because of my mundane professional preoccupation with market forces—the most shocking development I encountered after I enlisted in the immigration wars by publishing a 14,000-word National Review cover story, “Time To Rethink Immigration?” (June 22, 1992—after, let the record show, Tom Fleming’s magisterial “The Real American Dilemma,”[PDF]the lead essay in ChroniclesMarch 1989 “Nation of Immigrants” issue, which sparked perhaps the first shot in what turned out to be a brutal civil war within the late, great conservative movement).

More recently, I have been dismayed, and deeply impressed, by the bitter hostility that the younger writers for my immigration-focused website, VDare.com, have for the libertarians they have encountered on campus.

For us dinosaurs back in the 1970’s, the libertarian critique of the seemingly inevitable trend to socialism—which emphatically included Nixon’s capitulation to wage and price controls—was an epiphany.  When the celebrated American socialist intellectual Robert Heilbroner (I argued with him in person!) famously conceded at the end of his life that, “Less than 75 years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won . . . Capitalism organizes the material affairs of humankind more satisfactorily than socialism,” we were euphoric.

And we were right to be euphoric.  We had been right.  They had been wrong.

But it’s gradually become apparent to me that no one under 40 understands this—any more than he understands how omnipresent and existential was the threat posed by the Cold War.

And these young men are right, too.  That was then.  This is now.  And what is at stake now is the survival of the historic American nation.

To be fair to me, I had reason for hope about the libertarians.  The brief intellectual eddy of “paleolibertarianism” did take account of the metamarket.  But, alas, this tendency was badly damaged by the premature death in 1995 of Murray Rothbard (although the economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe keeps the flame alive at his annual Property and Freedom Society conferences).

In my 1992 National Review article, and even more in Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster (my 1995 book that grew out of it), I made serious efforts to engage the libertarians in argument.  We even maintained a dedicated archive on libertarianism and immigration at VDare.com.

But I’ve now concluded that it’s hopeless.  The libertarians are as boneheaded as the Student Marxists of my youth.  Whatever motivates them, it is not rational argument.

This was a serious problem for me as a financial journalist.  For example, I had regularly used material from the libertarian Cato Institute in various polemical disputes that I prosecuted at Forbes But, after clashing with Cato immigration enthusiasts, I realized (to my naive surprise) that their data simply could not be trusted.  I remember cornering Catoite Steve Moore—subsequently at the Wall Street Journal editorial page and now (alarmingly) at the Heritage Foundation—over data on a different matter that he had expressed in absolute terms when they should have been expressed relative to GDP.  I genuinely don’t see the point of this sort of legerdemain: It’s like sending troops into battle with defective rifles.  Moore very grumpily conceded I was right.

On a personal level, however, perhaps the most distressing debates over immigration were not with the libertarians but with the neoconservatives.

I knew so many of them personally in New York in the 1980’s.  Their fighting spirit, if you share their enemies in the various wild fistfights that they get themselves into, can only inspire passionate love.  Thus, I particularly remember Norman Podhoretz, the genius editor of Commentary, telling me, “You do realize what causes AIDS?  Promiscuous buggery!”  Podhoretz is also the only person I ever saw literally hopping with rage, over some maneuver in the advertising alliance between Commentary and National Review.

I genuinely thought, when I first began writing about the immigration issue, that Podhoretz and his circle might be our allies.  (They said they believed in America, didn’t they?)  I actually arranged a dinner with Podhoretz, Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), and John O’Sullivan, then editor of National ReviewPodhoretz was polite about our arguments, but eventually turned to Mehlman and invoked their common Ellis Island heritage—to which Mehlman replied that, just because he was once a fetus, he didn’t have to be against abortion.  Podhoretz instantly clinched, and the debate ended inconclusively.  But I thought (and said, when I reported this incident in Alien Nation) that he was thinking.

I was completely mistaken.  I now suspect (I don’t know for sure, because he seems to have stopped talking to me) that Podhoretz was a factor in William F. Buckley’s firing of O’Sullivan and ending National Review’s brief (1992-97) resistance to ruling-class immigration enthusiasm.  I used to assume Podhoretz’s unspoken motive might have been to preserve the scandalous 1980 refugee statute, which was serving in effect as an expedited, subsidized immigration program for Soviet Jews. Today, however, the former Soviet Union has run out of Jews; but the enthusiasm continues.  (I must stipulate that a surprising number of individual neoconservatives are not immigration enthusiasts, although for some reason they have no influence.)

Of course, intellectuals are always inclined to think that ideas actually matter.  But two grosser developments since the Reagan Revolution may be more important.  The first is the rise of what New York Times token-conservative columnist Ross Douthat (I suspect he’s secretly OK) has called “Donorism”: the conscious domination of the Republican Party by its corporate supporters, who care about nothing but crony capitalism, which in the case of immigration policy means cheap labor.  The second is the concomitant rise of what we at VDare.com call “Conservatism Inc.”—the new class of Republican operatives and publicists based inside the Beltway, ultimately servants of the Donorists, who mediate between them and the liberal establishment, absorbing liberalism in the process.

Perhaps anomalously, my experience since entering the immigration wars causes me to echo abolitionist John Brown on his way to the gallows after Harper’s Ferry: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood.  I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

Of course, the land is not guilty—but its elite is.

And, as in the case of Brown, and of my former libertarian allies against socialism and communism, I still believe that what now appears to be an inevitable trend will not stand.

Peter Brimelow [Email him] is the editor of VDARE.com. His best-selling book, Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster, is now available in Kindle format.