Tag Archives: then versus now

Has the era of mass migration come to a close?

Thomas Sowell’s Migrations and Cultures is an excellent book. Whether talking about Indian immigrants in Uganda or Jews or overseas Chinese, Sowell demonstrates page after page how anti-foreign bias combined with standard restrictionist arguments lead to harrassment and intimidation of market-dominant minorities, mostly immigrants and their descendants. And he shows, with one example after another, how these actions ultimately hurt the natives themselves once the market-dominant minorities pack up and leave, or are forcibly expelled.

Given the contents of the book, I furrowed my brow that the most salient review blurb was from US restrictionist (and himself an immigrant from Canada) Peter Brimelow (author of Alien Nation and founder-cum-editor of VDARE). Here’s what the blurb says (emphasis mine):

Thomas Sowell is one of the wonders of the American intellectual world…Not only is the book crammed with detailed research that even experts will find instructive, but it is willing to look unflinchingly at evidence that suggests migration can be bad as well a good — and even that the era of mass migration may be coming to a close.

So I thumbed back to the conclusion of the book. The last few pages of the conclusion seem to be informed speculation about the future on Sowell’s part, rather than a summary of the book’s contents. So, agreement or disagreement with these could be quite independent of agreeing or disagreeing with the historical analysis presented by Sowell. Continue reading Has the era of mass migration come to a close?

Are Open Borders Utopian?

I can’t remember if anyone has ever actually responded to my advocacy of open borders by calling them “utopian,” but they often seem to be thinking it. Are open borders utopian? It would be truer to think of them as “back to normal.” The attempt to control migration through a comprehensive passport regime is a 20th-century innovation. The late 19th century was a kind of golden age of open borders, when passport regimes were removed and the world’s leading countries accepted immigrants with few or no restrictions, but even before that migration was restricted only in certain places and for certain groups and not very rigorously. Certain countries– England in the Middle Ages, Spain a couple of centuries later– expelled the Jews, but you didn’t need a visa to travel from Rome to London.

That said, for most of history, no one, native or foreign, enjoyed the degree of protection of human rights that people in the advanced nations of the West take for granted today. Much of the history of civilization was dominated by absolute monarchs of one kind or another, who were above any law. Often, too, aristocratic castes had the de facto power and/or the de jure right arbitrarily to violate the property or persons of their social inferiors. Courts have tended to be more arbitrary and corrupt than in the contemporary West; and crime rates were higher. Economic opportunity was limited and more dependent on scarce resources, which gave people more valid reasons to see a migrant as a security threat. (How will he survive, unless by stealing our cattle?) Literacy was less widespread, and there has never been a lingua franca with a reach comparable to that enjoyed by English today. For all these reasons, the practical opportunities for safe migration have surely been limited for most of historical mankind, even if passport control was not among the obstacles.

So if we were to abolish passport controls today, we would be giving rise to something rather new under the sun. Relative to the late 19th century, freedom of migration has been politically restricted but technologically and socially enabled. It’s hard to get a visa, but once you do, you can hop on a plane, arrive speaking English, and are unlikely to encounter racism. If we were to remove the passport controls, human beings worldwide would be born with a far greater prospect of practical mobility than ever before in history. Considering that (a) it’s always presumptively good to give people more options, and (b) a glance at the global distribution of income makes it clear that some people could benefit a lot by moving, that’s a very good thing. Is it too good? Are open borders utopian? Continue reading Are Open Borders Utopian?

Why was immigration freer in 19th century USA?

In a blog post titled The Golden Age of Migration, Bryan Caplan notes that, despite its many flaws, the 19th century US was morally better than the current US in one important respect: open borders. Caplan quotes a passage from the book Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future and adds:

Imagine – there was a time when elite opinion and public policy took free immigration seriously. All democracy did to tarnish this political miracle was scapegoat Asian immigrants, while leaving the doors open to not just Europe, but Latin America as well. Whatever its flaws, the Gilded Age was truly the Golden Age of Immigration. Libertarians – and anyone who cares about the genuinely poor – should give credit where credit is due.

An important question is: what has changed since then, and why? There seem to be three kinds of reasons:

  1. Public and elite opinion about the wisdom/desirability of immigration restrictions has changed. See the then versus now page for some arguments that have been offered about the differences between the present and the past.
  2. The technological/financial feasibility of immigration restrictions has changed. In the 19th century, the US federal government was small, hence it lacked the financial and technological resources to enforce immigration restrictions. Passports had not been introduced. Now, with the exception of migration along the southern border, most forms of immigration into the United States can be controlled at relatively low direct cost.
  3. Public and elite opinion about the moral permissibility of immigration restrictions has changed. In the 19th century, however much people hated immigrants, shutting down immigration just wasn’t an option morally on the table, just as deportation to Africa is not a moral option to the problem of black crime in the United States today.

What is the right mix of reasons? My best guess: (1) is unlikely, because anti-foreign bias has been there since the dawn of history. Further, the problems created by immigrants, both real and perceived, haven’t shrunk that much since the 19th century. So, I suspect the reason is some sort of mix of (2) and (3), where they both feed into each other — if immigration restrictions aren’t technically feasible, then they aren’t a salient option morally either, and vice versa.

Any other ideas?