"Immigration And America": Peter Brimelow's Address To The Philadelphia Society

Peter Brimelow writes: Better late than never…at least the subject isn't going away! Almost a year ago, I spoke at the Philadelphia Society's National Meeting, which was devoted to the topic "What Is An American?", at the kind invitation of the chairman, Midge Decter. Also on the panel were San Jose State's Professor Benjamin Powell, who might fairly be described as a raging libertarian (paper here), and Pepperdine's Professor Andrew Yuengert, who was actually quite sensible (paper here). We were introduced by Loyola New Orleans' Professor Nicholas Capaldi.

Nicholas Capaldi:

Immigration is obviously a topic central to American national identity. Of course, there is the old cliché that we are all either immigrants or descended from immigrants. That is what we all have in common, but that is where the commonality ends.

There are extraordinary differences of opinion on the issue of immigration. We have three speakers today; I am going to introduce each one right before they speak. Our first speaker is Peter Brimelow, who has earned his reputation as a financial journalist and is also now connected with the webzine VDARE.COM: he has graciously consented to address us today. As probably all of you know, the contemporary debate on immigration was really sparked by his book Alien Nation. We are very fortunate to have him as our first speaker. Will you please join me in welcoming Peter Brimelow.

Peter Brimelow:

Thank you, Nick, thank you, ladies and gentlemen. As will be immediately apparent to you, I'm an immigrant myself. I'm not sure this microphone is really working very well, but it isn't going to get much help from me! So if you don't understand what I am saying, just stipulate in some socially acceptable way and I will redouble my efforts to assimilate acoustically. [Laughter]

As you all know, immigrants do the dirty jobs that Americans won't do, and here I am! [Laughter]

To begin at the end, we're talking about "What is an American?" My answer is that Americans just are—they are Americans. We're told this is a nation of immigrants. But I say it's a nation. Immigration is just not as central to the American experience as a lot of romantic intellectuals would like you to think.

It is true, as Nick just said, that the book I wrote, Alien Nation, just exactly ten years ago, although it wasn't the first book on immigration, was perhaps the most noticed up to that point. Which is to say, the most denounced! [Laughter].

Which reminds me of the only useful thing I learned at the Stanford Graduate School of Business: the definition of a pioneer—"a man on a covered wagon with an arrow in his back."

Since then of course, there have been, after prudent interval, a number of excellent books on the subject, Michelle Malkin, I should say, Pat Buchanan, Sam Huntington, and of course Professor Hanson who spoke last night.

I can't say I've received an enormous amount of credit for being first, which is sort of mildly irritating. And my late wife, who some of you will remember, found it extremely irritating.

But it is typical of the way that ideas slowly enter mainstream discourse. In 1981 or 1982, I wrote an editorial for Barron's which was headlined "The Man in the Iron Mask." That was what I jokingly said was what the Reagan Administration had done to one of its White House staffers, Peter Ferrara, who had dared to mention the idea of privatizing Social Security.

That was 20-odd years ago. Now it's Administration policy!

So, by my count, we should see serious immigration reform this country—by which I mean an immigration moratorium—sometime around the beginning of the next decade.

Now, to show you that I have assimilated culturally, I am going to quote Will Rogers, whom nobody in Britain has ever heard of.

Will Rogers said—do you all know who Will Rogers was? [Laughter]. Oh, good. You never know nowadays!

Will Rogers once said that it's not what people don't know that hurts them, it's what they know that ain't true.

This is preeminently the case with the immigration debate.

To get the most boring thing out of the way first—although it preoccupies me as a financial journalist.

When I came in to look at the technical literature on the economics of immigration in the early 1990s, I was amazed to find that the consensus among labor economists—the consensus—was that the great inflow triggered by the 1965 Act, and the simultaneous breakdown of the southern border, is not beneficial in aggregate. It brings no net aggregate economic benefit to native-born Americans. It does increase U.S. GDP. But virtually all of that is captured by the immigrants themselves. The native-born Americans are simply no better off.

Since Alien Nation came out, I am happy to say, my reading of the consensus has been confirmed by National Research Council's 1997 report The New Americans. It estimated that what is called the "immigration surplus"—the net additional wealth that reaches native-born Americans—was something like ten billion dollars. Utterly trivial in a 5 or 6 trillion dollar economy. And wiped out by the transfer costs, the cost of schools and emergency room hospital care and that sort of thing, which are very substantial.

In a microstudy, the NRC found the cost to every native-born family in California of the immigrant presence, as of 1996, was something like a thousand dollars a year. Every native-born family is subsidizing the immigrant presence by a thousand dollars a year.

Essentially, Americans are subsidizing their own displacement.

Now, actually, I would say something similar may be true—although we don't know, because it hasn't been properly researched—of last Great Wave of immigration between 1880-1920. It's not clear that that raised the income of native-born.

We were always told, particularly by the descendents of that Great Wave of immigration, that "immigrants built America". But, actually, it may be more like they got on a rolling band wagon. The thing was already underway before they arrived. The basic reason is that free economies are extremely flexible in their use of labor.

One thing I also found when I read the technical literature which is also in the NRC report, is that even though immigration doesn't raise the per capita income of the native-born, it does cause immense redistribution between the native-born communities—amounting at that point to about 2 percent of GDP shifted from labor to capital.

That explains the class base of this debate. It is extremely beneficial to have immigration—for people who go to country clubs and vote Republican. It is extremely unbeneficial if you are a blue collar worker.

It is particularly unbeneficial for African Americans. I am about to publish on VDARE.COM an article that show black unemployment has actually risen—risen—since this recovery started 13 quarters ago.

And this is exactly what happened with the First Great Wave. The movement of blacks into the northern cities and northern industries in the late nineteenth century stopped when immigration began.

Booker T. Washington was highly aware of this. His famous Atlanta exposition speech was half about how blacks had to "cast down your bucket where you are", the part we all remember, acquire technical skills and so on. But the other half was a passionate appeal—it's actually one of the great speeches in the language—to whites, and particularly to Southerners, to stop mass immigration, what he described as people of "strange habits" and "foreign tongues", because it was displacing blacks.

Now the second thing that people think they know about immigration, which isn't true—I guess Professor Hanson illustrated it last night. He referred at one point to America being a "multiracial nation."

Well, there are certainly a lot of races in America now. But that is not how the Founding Fathers saw America. They actually forbade the naturalization of blacks; they limited U.S. citizenship to free whites. Asians couldn't become citizens until well into the twentieth century. There was no substantial non-European immigration until 1965.

Maybe it shouldn't have been that way—but it was. The U.S. remained a substantially homogenous nation well into living memory.

As you know, John Jay wrote this famous passage in Federalist Number Two: he said, in effect, we can make federalism work in this country because we are "one united people -- a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion,"—and he didn't mean Christianity, he meant Protestantism"attached to the same principles of government very similar in their manners and customs."

See, this isn't a theoretical point. It goes to the roots of American order. If you think America is an organic nation that has evolved like every other nation, then you have to be careful how you introduce people into it, about immigration policy. Whereas if you think it's a Proposition Nation, sort of like a credit agreement—just sign on the bottom line—you can be much more relaxed about it.

But the historical evidence, to a much larger extent than people realize, is that the U.S. is a traditional nation.

This brings me to the third thing that people think they know about immigration which ain't true: that the U.S. is "a nation of immigrants."

Of course all nations are nations of immigrants. There is no known case where people grew out of the ground. [Laughter]

What happened in the US did happen faster than elsewhere—America was put together faster. They did in 200 years what it took England over a thousand years to do.

But that raises the prospect that it can be undone just as fast as it was done—that the American union may not hold together if discordant elements are introduced.

There are two specific qualifications to this "nation of immigrants" idea that I recommend to you:

One qualification is that people think that immigration has existed throughout American history. But if you actually look at the data in Alien Nation—I went to the trouble to chart it— immigration is in fact highly discontinuous. There are floods of immigration followed by long periods with no immigration; there are pauses. These pauses were essential to assimilation.

The greatest, the most recent pause, of course, was in the middle of the 20th Century, as a result of the cut-off in the 1920s. But there are many other pauses, stretching right back into American history. There was a long period of time after the Revolution where there was very little immigration. When the Irish arrived in New England in the 1840s after the potato famine, they were coming into an area—which is where I now live by the way—where there was no immigration of any significance for two hundred years. Which is why it was such a shock to everybody. Yet New England developed enormously through that period, because of natural increase.

One of the things you often get thrown at you if you—well, you get a lot of things thrown at you if you are an immigration reformer, actually, but one of them is this argument: well, Ben Franklin was worried that the Germans in Pennsylvania wouldn't assimilate, but look what happened to them.

Of course, in fact, there are German-speaking enclaves in Pennsylvania. But the important thing that happened to the Germans is that German immigration stopped as a result to the Seven Years' War (the French and Indian War to Americans). And it never resumed until the 1840s. There was a seventy year period there where there was no significant German immigration. And that allowed assimilation to take place.

It's also true the intellectual elite tends to think America was Built By Immigrants because they live in New York or Los Angeles or somewhere like that—which are heavily immigrant cities, entirely immigrant cities.

But the last estimate that I saw, when I was researching Alien Nation, was that if there had been no immigration at all after 1790—none at all—the population of the US would still be about half of what it is now, through natural increase.

It's what is called the "founder effect". People who are there first start to multiply—it's like compound interest.

Obviously this is very hard to believe in New York, or Miami, or somewhere like that. But I live in the foothills of the Berkshires, in the Litchfield hills. And in my area there are a substantial number of blue collar workers that are colonial stock.

My son, Alexander, used to go up Tanner Hill on the school bus, stop at Tanner Farm, and a kid would come out called Tanner, whose family bought the land from the Indians. There is a lot more of this out there in Americaland than New Yorkers think.

I may say, by the way, that in the public schools of Litchfield County my children have learned a great deal about Martin Luther King, and how awful whites were to blacks. But that area of Connecticut was a hotbed of abolitionism. Those Connecticut farm boys joined up in vast numbers, and died in vast numbers, fighting to free the slaves. There was one famous regiment raised in Litchfield County: the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, which despite its name was an infantry regiment and which was shot to pieces at Cold Harbor. The woman who cuts my hair, the man who delivers my mail, had relatives who died in that battle. They're aware of it, but I have never heard any mention of it in the public schools.

I've asked teachers about it, I've asked the principals about it. None of them have ever heard of it.

This goes to the issue of what we mean by a "Proposition Nation". Maybe kids are being taught some kind of a "Proposition", a national creed, in the public schools. But what is it? Is it something we approve of?

What is a nation? It seems to me the only rational definition is that it has to be an ethno-cultural unit. It is not entirely ethnic—anybody, individuals of any race, can usually assimilate. But it's not entirely cultural either, as we are currently led to believe. There is a substantial ethnic component to a nation. And that has consequences which we are not really clear about, but which we know exist.

What we face now, with the post-1965 wave of immigration, is an unprecedented act of social engineering being performed by the government. The government is second-guessing the people on population size, because Americans of all races have spontaneously got their family size down to replacement levels. The American population has stabilized, absent immigration—but in fact it's projected to go up to 400, maybe 500 million, by 2050, because of immigration. And also, of course, we are rapidly shifting the racial balance. In 1960 the U.S. was 90 percent white; by 2050, whites will be about to go into the minority.

It seems to me that it's up to those who favor this to explain why they want to transform America. What do they have against the America that existed in 1965?

And why don't they explain it to the American people, so we can have a democratic debate about it?  Why does America have to be transformed?

The classic conservative point of view, it seems to me—though you don't see it on the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page—is that if it's not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. I don't think it's necessary to change the U.S., certainly by as much as is being changed right now.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his Nobel Prize speech that

"The disappearance of nations would impoverish us no less then if all men had become alike with one personality, one face. Nations are the wealth of mankind, its collective personalities. The very least of them wears its own special colors, and bears within itself a special facet of God's design."

A remarkable statement for somebody who was brought up a Marxist in that other would-be "Universal Nation"—the Soviet Union.

It seems to me that the U.S., as it had evolved by 1965, did reflect a special facet of God's design.

And I want to know why the government wants to monkey around with it.

Thank you very much. [Applause]