Economists On Immigration: What`s The Matter?
Recently, an "open
letter" to the President and Congress on
immigration was penned by George Mason University
Alex Tabarrok of the
Marginal Revolution blog. It was signed by over
500 economists even though it consisted of the usual
sentimental flapdoodle and duplicitous
double-dealing, such as citing data on legal immigrants
to argue for amnesty for illegal immigrants.
When it comes to immigration,
what`s the matter with economists, anyway?
Well, first let`s not blame all economists. The vast
majority had the self-respect not to sign.
Notably lacking from the list were the
biggest names in the field—such as
Paul Samuelson, and
Gary Becker Apparently, they have risen high enough
that they can afford to dissent from their colleagues
politically-correct happy-face groupthink on
The consensus among these economists, reflected in
the National Research Council`s
The New Americans back in 1997, is that
immigration, especially illegal immigration, does little
for economy as a whole. The productivity of illegal
so low that they don`t amount to much in the context
of a $12 trillion economy. Immigration`s main effect has
been to redistribute wealth away from low and average
income American citizens to the
immigrants themselves and to the
wealthy Americans who employ them.
Unfortunately, few economists know much about
immigration. Those 500 economists would likely average
worse on a test of factual knowledge about the subject
than the typical VDARE.COM reader.
But they don`t care. One apparent side effect of a
Ph.D. in economics is the assumption that you can
extrapolate from general principles without knowing
enough facts to understand which principles apply to
this particular situation.
Reading popular blogs by prominent economists—such as
Greg Mankiw (the Harvard professor and former
chairman of George W. Bush`s Council of Economic
Advisors), Berkeley prof
Brad DeLong`s blog, and
EconLog by George Mason`s Bryan Caplan and Arnold
Kling—reveals just how
ignorant most economists have chosen to remain about
the empirical realities of immigration.
They obviously haven`t heard the old saying,
"Better to remain silent and have people wonder if you
are ignorant than open your mouth and remove all doubt."
You can`t altogether blame economists for their
weakness on immigration. Most aren`t equipped by their
training to think hard about the broad range of issues
raised by immigration. Economists like to make
simplifying assumptions that leave them
intellectually disarmed for analyzing an issue that
extends so far beyond their bailiwick.
You`ve probably heard the story about the physicist,
chemist, and economist who are shipwrecked on a desert
island. Starving, they find a case of canned pork and
beans on the beach. But
they have no can opener. So they hold a symposium on
how to open the cans. The physicist goes first:
"I`ve devised a physical solution. We find a
pointed rock and propel it at the lid of the can at,
say, 25 meters per second—"
The chemist breaks in:
"No, I have a chemical solution: we heat the
molecules of the contents to over 100 degrees Centigrade
pressure builds to—"
The economist, condescension dripping from his voice,
"Gentlemen, gentlemen, I have a much more elegant
solution. Assume we have a can opener…"
Likewise, economists tend to
assume the health of the
cultural, and human underpinnings for our advanced
economy. Thus they tend to be clueless about the
long-term threats posed by immigration.
When the maverick Peruvian
Hernando de Soto first became prominent, he paid a
visit to the leading economists in the United States.
They wanted to discuss with him the typical issues that
interest contemporary economists—Peru`s budget deficits,
tariffs, privatization plans, and the like. De Soto,
however, wanted to find out how to set up a
country registrar of deeds office. "Everybody in
America who truly understood property rights died 100
years ago", he ruefully laughed.
We`re lucky to live in a Republic
cautiously built up by our forefathers to "
the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity"—
we can keep it. Prudence suggests that we not play
dice with the fundamentals of the American system—and
that those crucial elements may extend beyond what is
dreamt of in the economists` philosophy.
Likewise, the vast majority of the economics professors
have tried to ignore the most important book of the
decade on why rich countries are rich and poor countries
are poor: Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen`s
IQ and the Wealth of the Nations. (Fortunately,
economists Garett Jones and W. Joel Schneider have given
it serious consideration in their paper "Intelligence,
Human Capital, and Economic Growth".)
Libertarian economists are particularly reluctant to
allow any mention of
differences in IQ—because if we all just assume
that everybody is equal, well, that sweeps a lot of
unpleasant problems under the rug.
Moreover, when it comes to immigration, the views of
economists themselves are often driven by the opposite
of the rational individualism they assume in their
theories. Instead, they form their prejudices based on
ideology, emotion, and whim.
The economist-aesthete Cowen, for example,
called in Slate.com for the creation of a
Hispanic shantytown in New Orleans because so much
good pop music has come out of
Finally, although many economists advocate an
individual-centered moral code that
denigrates patriotism and any
solidarity with fellow citizens, it`s more than
ironic that family nostalgia and ethnocentrism are
probably the biggest drivers of many economists`
"When I see
unskilled Mexican workers coming into the United
States to find
better jobs, I cannot see any difference between
them and four Ukrainian immigrants I know who came into
the United States almost a century ago to find better
lives. Those four Ukrainians were my grandparents. So to
me, taking a hard line on immigration feels a lot like
slamming a door in the face of my grandmother."
Similarly, Paul Krugman wrote this spring in his
New York Times
“`Give me your tired,
your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe
Emma Lazarus, in a poem that still puts a lump in my
throat. I`m proud of America`s immigrant history, and
grateful that the
door was open when my
grandparents fled Russia. In other words, I`m
emotionally pro-immigration.” [North
of the Border, March 27, 2006]
(To Krugman`s credit, however, he went on to admit,
for the first time, that, "serious, nonpartisan
research reveals some
uncomfortable facts about the
economics of modern immigration, and immigration
from Mexico in particular.")
These economists obviously feel that the most
important purpose of future American immigration policy
is to validate the admission of their own grandparents
Ellis Island a century ago. Apparently, they haven`t
been educated to understand the strong emotions driving
their preferences. Their individualist perspective seems
to be too limited to comprehend many human motivations,
especially political ones.
Economists have gotten lots of valid mileage out of
the concept "
matter" in explaining human behavior.
What they need now is an additional two-word
worldview: "Families matter."
Like the economists, I too extrapolate from general
principles. But I focus on this simple insight, which is
underexploited in today`s intellectual
marketplace—unlike free market economics, which has
plenty of practitioners. Perhaps half of what I write is
linked to "Families matter".
course, I define "family" broadly,—not just in
the sense of nuclear family that Americans think most
about, but covering topics ranging from
nepotism, and up through
don`t claim to know how family will always matter—just
that many topics will turn out to have a family angle
overlooked in our current intellectual environment.
maybe that`s the difference between me and the
economists. They use general principles as shortcuts to
opinions. I use my two-word worldview as a Geiger
counter to help me figure out
where to start digging.
My worldview tells me that
immigration is a problem. The economists` worldview
could tell them the same thing. But many of them refuse
to let it.
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and