Charles Murray and Immigration

Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart says nothing about immigration, per se. Rather, it is about “the state of white America,” and in particular, about the separation of a new cognitive elite (“Belmont”) from a new underclass (“Fishtown”) with falling rates of male labor participation, high rates of out-of-wedlock births and single mothers, high rates of imprisonment, low rates of church attendance, and so forth. Murray alleges, with statistics to back up his story (though he has to fill in a lot of gaps with anecdote, speculation, and appeals to readers’ experience) a “segregation of the successful,” as smart people whom the university system has become increasingly efficient at discovering and bonding with each other sort themselves out and largely stop interacting with their under-achieving high school fellows or cousins.

The more homogeneous white America of 1963 that Murray looks back to with a certain degree of seeming nostalgia was the product of 1920s nativism, the New Deal, World War II, and in general, a couple of decades when collectivism had more influence in America than at any other time. In spite of his seeming nostalgia, Murray insists that he wouldn’t really want to go back to 1963: the “coming apart” that has taken place since then, however troubling, is a price worth paying for the innovation and variety that has been unleashed. I agree. Conformist egalitarianism is rather boring, stifling, stultifying. That was what the 1960s youth thought, more or less. That’s why they rebelled, for better and worse.

Here’s how Murray’s book connects to immigration. Nativists seem to want to reconstruct a lost national unity, or preserve what’s left of national unity, by excluding foreigners. Murray shows that national unity is unraveling without any help from foreigners. It’s unraveling at a time when the borders are far from open. It’s unraveling even among whites. It’s unraveling because people are different, and sort themselves out.

It’s a fallacy to think that “culture” is transmitted solely via family ties, and that “cultural” unity will naturally preserve itself if foreigners are kept out. That is most true of the least important aspects of culture: accents, jokes, habits. The more important aspects of culture, the distinctive values and virtues of being American, often transmute themselves, wax and wane, or fail to be transmitted from generation to generation, while foreigners frequently emulate them and may exemplify them better than Americans due to self-selection effects.

If anything, I would suggest that closed borders are more of a threat to America’s cultural unity than immigration is. Immigrants– not all of them, but most– always seem to have felt obligated and/or found it advantageous to assimilate to American culture, even if they hold dear some traits of their mother countries, e.g., national festivals and songs. Some aspects of American life which Americans may start to lose by taking them too much for granted– political and religious freedom, honesty and rule of law, economic opportunity, the psychological classlessness of a society that prides itself on being democratic– make an impression on immigrants for whom they are new, and who specially value them and reinforce them. In the first century and a half of America’s independent history, immigrants were a crucial element in America’s cultural equilibrium. When the borders were closed in the 1920s, American culture was destabilized, and swung first to the leftist collectivism of the 1930s, which metastatized into the claustrophobic conformism of the 1950s, which exploded into the radicalism and relativism of the 1960s, and fed into the “coming apart” on class lines (not racial or ethnic lines: “identity politics” are not the problem) beginning in the 1980s and accelerating into our own day. This is admittedly speculative, but it’s consistent with Murray’s evidence.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

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