Victor Davis Hanson

I made the following comment about Victor Davis Hanson at EconLog, in response to David Henderson’s recent post:

Hanson’s argument seems to consist entirely of anecdotal evidence. Well, here’s my anecdotal evidence. I moved out to the Central Valley of California a year ago. I lived for a little while in southeast Fresno, then in Sanger, a small town a little east, very near orange orchards, and now I’m in central Fresno. I haven’t had any encounters with crime. I once hired a guy who was a member of the Bulldog gang (inactive) to fix my car (didn’t know he was a gangster till he got to talking– very talkative guy). He had a lot of resentment towards the cops, and if I recall correctly his dad (we were at his parents’ house) was behind on the rent, but he was nice enough to me. I often leave my door unlocked at night. That’s dumb and it’s just my forgetfulness, but it’s indicative that I don’t feel a lot of fear. Basically, life is normal. If you look at crime statistics– see here: http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/cacrime.htm– property crimes are down, murders are down, forcible rape is down, burglaries are down by MORE THAN HALF since 1986, when Reagan’s amnesty passed. But “no one calls the sheriff anymore,” says Hanson. Well, surely they’d call the sheriff about MURDER, and that’s fallen sharply. Really, shouldn’t Hanson give us some evidence? Not just personal anecdotes but solid, statistical evidence? By his account, central California sounds like it’s descending into anarchy. Who am I to believe, him or my own lying eyes? As someone who lives here, his account just doesn’t ring true.

Now, it’s true that central California is sort of rural and backward compared to the East Coast metropolises where I lived for the previous ten years. One misses the charm of Georgetown, the buzz of sophisticated conversation in a corner Starbucks, the intelligentsia. But making the immigrants go away won’t make the intelligentsia come. On the contrary. The agricultural industry here is heavily dependent on immigrant labor. A lot of the economy around here, as far as I can tell, would just unravel without it.

I listened to a little of Hanson’s book, Mexifornia. He commits every fallacy in the book, again and again. I’ll concede that median and average incomes are probably a bit lower in the Central Valley than they would be without the immigration. That’s not inconsistent with immigration being beneficial to most immigrants and most natives, or even to it being Pareto-superior to closed borders. “Pareto-superior,” of course, is a concept far too sophisticated for the likes of Hanson to understand. Which is why he shouldn’t be taken seriously on this issue.

Henderson responded:

@Nathan Smith,
Wonderfully put, Nathan.
Until the last two sentences. I know Victor a little. As I mentioned, we are both Hoover fellows and so I occasionally talk to him in the special coffee room at Hoover. Don’t sell him short. I bet he can understand “Pareto superior.” And even people who can’t understand have views on the issue that we should take seriously. I did take him seriously, which is why I bothered responding. If we don’t take people’s concerns seriously, we get nowhere.

Well,  OK. Let me take Hanson seriously by responding to the introduction to his book Mexifornia on Google Books. It will soon become clear why I’m reluctant to respond to the whole thing. I may also make clear my impatience with Hanson on the topic of immigration. (I understand that Hanson is an excellent historian of ancient Greece. A while back, I listened to a brilliant course on ancient Greece from Yale by Donald Kagan, who repeatedly stressed his admiration for Victor Davis Hanson. But good specialists often make bad public intellectuals. I’m also probably closer to Hanson on foreign policy than Henderson is.) Mexifornia begins by pointing out that public opinion and policy have moved in Hanson’s direction since 2003. Hanson is partly right, though he exaggerates:

Fast-forward four years, and the climate has radically changed. Today the arguments of Mexifornia— close the borders, return to the melting pot, offer earned citizenship to most aliens in exchange for acceptance of English and American culture– seem almost tame. In 2002, when I began writing the book, no one thought the U.S. Congress would vote to erect a wall along the border with Mexico. Now there is grumbling that the signed legislation entails only 700 miles of fencing instead of covering the entire 1,950-mile border. Deportation was once an unimaginable response to the problem of millions here illegally. Now its practicality, rather than its morality, appears to be the main point of contention in congressional debates…

In congressional debates, perhaps, but the morality of deportation is certainly not uncontroversial! Anyway, as a historian, Hanson should know that public opinion doesn’t always move towards the truth. As he might recall, the popular assembly of Athens condemned Socrates to death. There is, in any case, a bit of wishful thinking:

The attempt by Chicano activists in California to banish the descriptive term “illegal alien” in favor of the politically correct “undocumented worker” has failed…

Not true, I think: normal people don’t say “illegal alien.” But this is a good example of why Hanson annoys me. The phrase ‘illegal alien,” not undocumented worker, is politically correct in a rather precise sense: it’s an attempt to impose legalese on natural language, while creating in the hearer’s mind a ludicrous association between undocumented workers and extra-terrestrial space aliens. The term undocumented worker, by contrast, is descriptive. It simply states the facts non-judgmentally, whereas “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” import political categories into the conversation. Throughout the book, Hanson’s tendentiousness chafes. Here’s another instance:

Estimates of eleven or twelve million [undocumented workers]– with half a million to one million arriving per year– are often accepted as reasonable by both sides in the debate… The result of such staggering numbers [but I have to interrupt him: this is less than 5% of the US resident population, what’s so staggering about that?] is that [immigrants] now are not just a presence in California or the American Southwest, but frequently appear at Home Depot parking lots in the Midwest, emergency rooms in New England, and construction sites in the Carolinas… Most Americans assumed that the formidable powers of integration and popular culture would continue to incorporate any distinctive ethnic enclave, as had been done so successfully with past generations who arrived in large numbers… But when over ten million came north from Mexico in little more than a decade– the great majority without English, a high school education or legality– entire apartheid communities began springing up in the American Southwest.

Apartheid? The use of the word illustrates not only Hanson’s tendentiousness but also what I might call his moral illiteracy. Apartheid was a coercive regime which attempted to keep people apart by force on the basis of a birth trait, specifically race. What Hanson is advocating is a coercive regime that attempts to keep people apart by force on the basis of a birth trait, place of birth. To the extent that immigrants voluntarily self-segregate because they like to be near to their own kind of people, that’s a world away, morally speaking from apartheid. Immigration restrictions are much closer to apartheid, with similar principles and goals, albeit less brutal methods (though mass deportation is closing that gap).

In any case, as usual, Hanson has his facts wrong. Hanson says at the beginning that his book is “not a scholarly, footnoted study of the economics and demography of [undocumented] immigration.” Too often, this is his excuse for inventing facts. Assimilation in the 19th century took a while. Many immigrants came over not knowing English and settled in ethnic ghettoes: Little Italy, Chinatown, the Polish neighborhood, etc. The evidence shows that today’s immigrants are integrating and assimilating, even though the system seems designed to minimize assimilation, by ensuring that a disproportionate share of immigrants comes from countries from which the US can be accessed overland, and by giving them less incentive to learn English, or feel loyal to America, because they’re afraid of getting kicked out. There is now an international English-speaking bourgeoisie, heavily influenced culturally by America and the West, which could integrate almost instantly into US society. I’ve met lots of these people. They have a very hard time getting visas. But the melting pot is working just fine, in spite of nativist sabotage.

One thing that I suppose I could praise in Hanson is that he is interested in the ethical aspect of the immigration question. But he and I seem to speak different ethical languages. Thus, Hanson writes:

The question of fairness about who is allowed into the United States is another source of public discontent– especially when almost 70 percent of all immigrants, legal and illegal, arrive from Mexico alone. Asians, for example, are puzzled as to why their relatives wait years for official approval to enter the country, while Mexican nationals come across the border illegally, counting on rolling amnesties to obtain citizenship…

By all means, let’s talk about fairness. But I am at a loss to imagine what theory of justice underlies the judgments Hanson is making here. Is he suggesting that every foreigner should have an equal right to migrate to the United States? Is he suggesting that it should depend on some other criterion than physical proximity? If so, what should be the criterion? I cannot appraise such questions.

If we’re going to think about the justice of migration policy at all, surely the right starting place is to recognize the great injustice that some people are born in rich countries to lives of political freedom and abundant opportunity and social safety nets, while others are born in poor countries with little hope of escaping from dire poverty and/or political oppression. What should we do about that? Answer: Justice demands open borders. But if we’re not going to open the borders, I don’t see anything in particular to choose from between letting in the small portion of aspiring migrants who happen to be Mexican and letting in a small portion of aspiring migrants, selected in some other way. Would Hanson like to explain? What “fairness” is he talking about?

Terrorism is mentioned. Hanson writes:

It makes little sense to screen tourists, inspect cargo containers, and check the passenger lists of incoming flights when our border with an untrustworthy Mexico remains porous… While it may be true that opponents of [undocumented] immigration have used the post-9/11 fear of terrorism to further their own agenda of closing the border with Mexico, they are absolutely correct that presently the easiest way for jihadist cells to cross into the United States is overland from the south.

No evidence is offered, of course, and none of the 9/11 terrorists got in that way. But to the extent that the point has any truth, all it proves is that immigration restrictions create undocumented flows of people which can provide camouflage to terrorists. It’s safe to say that virtually all undocumented immigrants would come in legally if they could, and that would give us much better records of who is coming in and out of the country. Honest nativists would admit that there are trade-offs, and argue that the benefits of discretionary non-security-related exclusion of foreigners are great enough to offset whatever risk of terrorism arises from the undocumented population flows that result from the policy.

This paragraph is amusing because Hanson overreaches so far as to refute himself:

In the last decade, the United States has had bitter experiences with sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism abroad. There was the Hutu-Tutsi bloodbath in Rwanda, followed by the unraveling of Yugoslavia into Croatian, Serbian, and Albanian camps. Now almost daily we hear of Pashtun-Tajik-Uzbek hatred among the multifarious warring clans in Afghanistan, and the ongoing mayhem between Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis in Iraq. When we are spending blood and treasure to encourage the melting pot and national unity, why would anyone wish to foster tribalism or ethnic separatism here in the United States?

The answer, of course, is that no one does. Well, except maybe Hanson and other nativists, especially advocates of mass deportation that bears a disturbing resemblance to Yugoslav ethnic cleansing, with vast numbers of people driven out of their homes.

Hanson goes on to show that he doesn’t understand free speech:

Then there were the demonstrations here in the United States in April-May 2006, when nearly half a million protestors took to the streets of our largest cities, from Chicago to Los Angeles. Previously naive Americans had assumed that the debate over border security and immigration was in their own hands.

I don’t get it. This is the age of the internet. Foreigners can comment on US policy, agitate, give advice, as much as they want. It’s just a click away. Why would anyone think that freedom of speech can or should be limited to the American-born? The founders understood that freedom of speech and other rights are human rights, recognized and protected, not bestowed, by government. What is Hanson’s theory? I can’t quite fathom the strange statism of this remark. Hanson is worried about importing Latin American radicalism:

Turmoil in areas of Mexico where many [undocumented immigrants] come from is especially worrisome. Recently, for example, nearly the entire state of Oaxaca was close to open revolt over efforts to force the resignation of the provincial governor Ulises Ruiz– with teacher rebellion, widespread lawlessness, vigilantism, and a complete breakdown of order. This turbulence in Mexico adds to the perception that [undocumented immigrants] arrive… as political dissidents who take to the streets to demand social justice, as was their custom back home.

And? For one thing, if they’re protesting for social justice, that sounds like a good thing. But even if illegal immigrant protestors were making unreasonable demands, so what? Just drive by. Hanson seems to be hinting that we risk “widespread lawlessness, vigilantism, and a complete breakdown of order,” but that’s absurd, or to put it in a more neutral way, where’s the evidence? The US is in no danger of revolution, and even the Occupy movement, which had a slightly revolutionary flavor, had basically nothing to with undocumented immigration. In general, one very irritating feature of Hanson’s book is that he wastes the reader’s time (at best) with lots of arguments that fall down immediately if one actually knows the statistics about immigrants and crime. A serious writer would have raised law-and-order issues as a speculative possibility but admitted that right now the evidence overwhelmingly refutes fears of an immigrant crime wave. Is Hanson ignorant, or deceptive?

Here’s another passage where Hanson is speaking an ethical language that I find bewildering:

Worker remittances sent back to Mexico from the United States now bring in about $15 billion annually in precious American dollars– equivalent to the revenue from 500,000 barrels a day of exported oil. [That’s good, right?] Mexico cannot afford to lose its second-largest source of hard currency, and will do almost anything to ensure its continuance. [That makes sense.] The attitude of the Mexican government is another factor that has convinced Americans that the border must be closed. [What? Why? Nonsequitur!] When Mexico City publishes cartoons advising its own citizens how best to cross the Rio Grande [What’s wrong with that?], Americans are appalled. [The government is just trying to help its citizens access opportunities.] Not only does Mexico brazenly undermine American law [We try to undermine bad laws in other countries too, and rightly so] in order to subsidize its own failures [Low blow, but what’s his point? Almost every country in the world is poorer than the US– is that “failure?”], but it also assumes that those who flee northward are among its least educated citizens, without much ability to read beyond the comic book level. [This is just bizarre. They don’t have to use the pamphlets if they don’t want to. Probably a lot of them are uneducated, so simple is appropriate. Anyway, why make the info more complicated than it needs to be?Well-educated people can read comic books too. Does Hanson think the Mexican government should have circulated learned tomes about how to cross the Rio Grande? And is Hanson really posing as a defender of the dignity of Mexican migrants against their own government that’s trying to help them out.]

We are also learning that Mexico– beyond wanting its expatriates’ cash [Why not? Lost of mouths to feed, schools to run, etc.] or their lobbying efforts for Mexican interests once they are safely across the border [I doubt this is important, but anyway it seems innocuous]– has little concern about the welfare of its citizens abroad in America, who live in crowded apartments, drive dangerous vehicles [What in the world am I to make of this? Isn’t it their choice? And how would they be living at home, given that Mexico is a poor country?] and count on generous American health care and food subsidies [Evidence is needed here, but anyway it should hardly be the priority of the Mexican government to protect the American taxpayer] while they send nearly half their modest wages back to the motherland. [No one’s forcing them to do that! Apparently, they’re able to live on what they retain. I’d say, kudos to them for their generosity!] Thus Mexico exports its own citizens [Not exactly. They go voluntarily, they’re not slaves, they can’t be “exported” like goods.] in the expectation that they will remain like serfs, [Very very very inapt analogy. Serfs are bound to the land. It’s Hanson who wants to bind people to the land.] surrendering much of the fruit of their toil to their distant masters. [Correction: giving it to their distant families.]

Even more grotesquely, the real estate market in Baja California has been booming in the last five years. [I’m at a loss to imagine how that’s even bad, let alone “grotesque,” let alone “even more grotesque.”] Once Mexico grasped that its own unspoiled coast was highly desirable to wealthy Americans as an extension of the prized but crowded Santa Barbara–San Diego seaside corridor, it began to reform its property and title law, and to welcome cash-laden expatriates with open arms. [Better and better!] All this is sound economics, but with a dubious ethical message [I’m waiting…]: Mexico City [why just the City, don’t they come from the whole country?] sends [no, they go voluntarily] the United States millions of its own illiterate poor [A statistic would be useful to support the “illiterate”], whom it will neither feed nor provide with even modest housing [Whoa. Is it the government’s job to “feed” us and “provide” us housing? Also, statistics please. Also, Mexico is a poor country, maybe it can’t provide very good living standards for its citizens– not like what they could earn in the United States.], but at the same time invites in thousands of Americans with cash to build expansive second homes on choice seaside property. [Is that the “dubious ethical message?” Isn’t it, rather, gains from trade that benefit all concerned? What moral theory are you working from, Hanson? Give me a clue here. I can’t even begin to guess.]

You see my difficulty. When Hanson really gets going, I have to mentally interrupt him several times per sentence, first to let my reason recover from his weird claims, second to try, usually unsuccessfully, to imagine where he’s coming from. The process that Hanson is describing in the last three paragraphs seems to represent Pareto improvement. Mexicans who would have trouble finding enough to eat or decent places to stay at home come to the United States to work. They earn wages that are low by American standards but are presumably (and the evidence would confirm this) higher than they could earn at home, since they not only are willing to come but send large remittances home. A poor country gets an important boost out of poverty from the inflows of foreign cash. Meanwhile, Baja California reforms its laws to welcome in affluent Americans who develop its attractive coastline. Everybody wins! This is exactly the kind of thing that an open borders advocate like me wants to see happening much more, on a global scale. Hanson finds it “grotesque.” But I have no idea why. That’s why I stand by my claim that Hanson doesn’t understand Pareto-superiority. He couldn’t write the way he does if he weren’t a couple orders of sophistication below that.

The kicker is that then he writes this:

Of course, the ultimate solution to the [undocumented] immigration predicament is to bring Mexican society up to near the level of affluence found in the United States…

Yes! That’s not Hanson’s discovery. A lot of people have thought very hard about how to do that. For example, Lant Pritchett. And Michael Clemens. And what conclusion did they come to? That by far the fastest, most effective way to raise living standards of people from these places– and probably the national income of the places themselves, too, given remittances and other spillovers– is to let their people come.

So, should we take people like Hanson seriously? Let’s say rather that we should hold them accountable. Why does he ignore the welfare gains to immigrants? Why does he focus on poverty rates when the denominator is changing— when, if immigration increases US poverty at all, it does so by bringing in poor people, not impoverishing them, but on the contrary ameliorating their poverty? What is his standard of “fairness?” Why does he reject with abhorrence situations that seem to be benefiting everyone involved? What’s his problem?

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

2 thoughts on “Victor Davis Hanson”

  1. Great post.

    I’ve generally confined my attention to restrictionists who know their numbers — people like Mark Krikorian — even if they give the numbers a spin and interpretation that I think is misleading or inaccurate. But it’s worth keeping in mind that the majority of restrictionists among the general public don’t know their numbers and resort to Victor Davis Hanson-style arguments to make their case. So this kind of critique is also a very important one to make.

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