Tag Archives: Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell on Immigration

This post was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog and is republished with the author’s permission.

Thomas Sowell is an influential and prolific writer whose books span the social sciences.  My shelves are full of them, decorated with underlines, marginalia, and dog-eared pages.  But in his recent columns and comments on immigration, Sowell has not approached that topic with the same rigorous attention to detail that he has in his books.  His reliance on incomplete historical examinations in his columns leads him to seemingly support a vast array of government interventions.  In these writings, Sowell makes the same mistakes that he accuses the “anointed” of making in many of his books.

In the column I’ll focus on, professor Sowell’s claim that today’s debate about immigration reform is not as fact-based as previous debates.  The implication is that a lack of facts will lead to poor policy decisions today whereas the policy changes 100 years ago were well thought out and fact-based.  He wrote:

A hundred years ago, the immigration controversies of that era were discussed in the context of innumerable facts about particular immigrant groups. Many of those facts were published in a huge, multi-volume 1911 study by a commission headed by Senator William P. Dillingham.

First, Sowell’s description of the Dillingham Commission’s commitment to facts is inaccurate.  It was a bi-partisan committee formed in 1907 to investigate the impacts of immigration on the United States – especially the so-called “new immigrants” from Eastern and Southern Europe.  The Commission was staffed by Progressives who believed that scientific managerial methods could effectively plan large parts of society and the economy by using the power of the government.  With the exception of one member, William S. Bennet of New York, the commission was stacked with members who had previously supported immigration restrictions. 

The Dillingham Commission produced 42 volumes by 1911, arguing that the “new immigrants” were fundamentally different from old immigrants who came from Western and Northern Europe.  Their culture, rates of economic success, and assimilative potential were supposedly severely constrained.  Those are the same claims made by today’s immigration opponents.  The Dillingham Commission suggested that immigration restrictions (ranging from relatively modest literacy tests to outright quotas and other massive interventions) could solve this “problem.” 

Information gathered by the Commission that showed new immigrants succeeding and assimilating was ignored or explained away because it contrasted with the world view of the commission members.  When charitable societies started to report on questionnaire slips that large numbers of Western and Northern Europeans received aid, “the slips were returned to societies for further information or for corrections.” The Commission defined retardation for children as being behind in school – an absurd definition designed to exaggerate retardation among non-English speaking immigrant children.  In American schools, the Dillingham Commission found that 66.9 percent of Polish Jewish students and 63.6 percent of Southern Italians students were retarded.  The Dillingham Commission was intensely worried about Asian immigration. 

Today’s immigration debate is better off without these types of “facts” produced by a commission designed to reach a certain conclusion. 

The Commission’s findings were similar to Sowell’s comment: “The immigrants of today are very different in many ways from those who arrived here a hundred years ago.”  Literally, Sowell is correct, but the implication that they are different in ways that make them less suited to modern American society doesn’t follow.  Immigration restrictionists 100 years ago said the same thing about Southern and Eastern European immigrants, looking back fondly on the Germans, Nordics, and Irish immigrants who came before.  Brutal terrorist bombings carried out by Italian anarcho-communists, including 38 mail bombs in 1919 and numerous attempts on the life of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, confirmed the pessimism. 

Before the Dillingham Commission, immigration restrictionists in the early and mid-19th century thought the Germans and Catholic Irish were unassimilable compared to the Scots-Irish and Huguenots who came before.  One worry about the Germans was that their collectivist culture and political struggles in Germany would clash with the individualism necessary to make freedom flourish in America.  Catholics were considered to harbor a deep anti-republicanism and a culture inimical to liberty.  Time has shown how absurd those worries were.

Thomas Sowell wrote two books explaining the flaws of supporting massive government interventions based on the recommendations of elites – especially in the face of so much historical and economic counter-evidence.  In the Vision of the Anointed, Sowell rightly criticizes the Ralph Naders of the world for spinning tales of doom and gloom that call for government intervention based on very little evidence.  He humorously calls these people Teflon prophets.  But Sowell is acting as a Teflon prophet when it comes to immigration.  In a cagey way, he predicts that great harm will come to the United States due to immigration.  He does not propose a policy solution but because he describes a supposed problem with such a dire tone the reader is meant to feel that he should oppose immigration liberalization. 

Did the Dillingham Commission’s fears that new immigrants and their descendants would fail to assimilate come true?

Asians and their descendants, a group viciously criticized by the Dillingham Commission, have culturally assimilated and their rate of economic success exceeds that of other Americans.  You don’t have to take my word for it, just read what Thomas Sowell has written on the issue.  Italians, Jews, and other immigrant groups criticized by the Commission also culturally assimilated and their descendants have been very successful.  The Dillingham Commission was clearly wrong about these immigrant groups.  Immigration restrictions inspired by that Commission imposed large costs on America: We likely lost an opportunity to have at least tens of millions of more productive citizens from Europe, Asian, and elsewhere – unintentionally sentencing many to death.   

The Dillingham Commission also claimed that there were just too many people and the economy could not create enough wealth to sustain a high standard of living – a ludicrous proposition thoroughly demolished by Julian Simon.  With a population of just over 92 million people in 1910, the Commission concluded that too much immigration was slowing America’s economic growth and that large numbers of new people were not necessary for industrialization because that phase of economic expansion was behind us … in 1910.  Such grandiose claims of the future that call for government intervention could only come from the self-proclaimed anointed

The Dillingham Commission was severely criticized when it was released and was not accepted as fact as Sowell claimed.  A criticism of the report famously questioned its entire statistical methodology and conclusions.  That criticism, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, dismissed the “popular delusion” that immigrants displace American workers by writing: “[i]n the long run … supply and demand approximately balance each other.”  Just as then, similar disagreements have continued to this day over other immigration studies.     

The Dillingham Commission’s immigration restrictionist recommendations were based on poor statistical methods, an undue faith in the ability of Progressive social-reforms to guide social development, and a rejection of labor market economics.  The Dillingham Commission was not an honest study to determine the facts of immigration as Professor Sowell described.          

Second, Sowell brings up the Boston terror attack as a warning against immigration of people with cultures that are incompatible with Western values.  He has a point about security, but it’s not that immigration should be curtailed.  As much as this is painful to consider, some criminals and terrorists will always be able to sneak in regardless of our immigration policy.  The question is not whether we want no criminals or a lot of criminals, the relevant question is: which system will prevent more criminals and terrorists from entering at an acceptable cost? 

A legal system that prevented all immigration and tourism would prevent some criminals from coming in and could have prevented the Boston terror attack, but at a gargantuan economic cost not to mention the violation of individual liberties such a policy would entail.  But a more open immigration system that screens people for criminality but lets peaceful people through will reduce the size of the haystack and make it easier for law and immigration enforcement to catch the criminal and terrorist needles.  Public policy should be based on facts and not anecdotes.  There is evidence that there should additional screenings and investigations for some immigrants but that does not mean blanket bans on the immigration of certain ethnic or religious groups should be instituted.

Thomas Sowell’s trust in the findings of a Progressive immigration commission that recommended massive government interventions based on manipulated statistics – a near textbook example of a Teflon prophet – is in blaring contrast to the rest of his work that produces many reasons to be skeptical of such schemes.  In 100 years, will Americans look back fondly on today’s immigrants and their successful assimilation as they have in other periods of American history?  Or will this be the first time that immigrants and their descendants don’t become Americans?  Given the rapid rate of assimilation across the board, with varying rates of success, there is little to distinguish today’s immigration experience from that of our forefathers.   

Thomas Sowell on the Economics of Immigration

Post by Alex Nowrasteh (occasional blogger for the site, joined April 2012; pieces published are by default republished from other sources with permission). See:

FINANCIAL INTEREST DISCLOSURE: Nowrasteh has a paid job as immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute (since April 15, 2012), and formerly had a similar role at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

This post was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog and is republished with the author’s permission.

Thomas Sowell, distinguished social scientist and columnist, recently criticized Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) for his statement that America needs immigration reform to avoid a “worker shortage.” Ryan was trying to explain that allowing more workers to come in the future would allow the economy to grow. He incorrectly used the word “shortage, which has a specific meaning in economics, and Sowell was right to criticize him for that. 

However, the economics of immigration are far more complex than Sowell’s writings let on. After dinging Ryan for his word choice, Sowell went on to explain that if American farmers don’t have enough workers, they will just raise their wages to attract Americans into the profession:

In agriculture, the farmers would obviously prefer to get workers who get low pay rather than workers they have to pay a higher wage… And as long as there is an unlimited supply of farm workers coming in from Mexico, they will never have to raise the wages very much… And it’s a time when millions of Americans are out of work, and are looking for any kind of work. And so this is utter nonsense.

If Sowell is going to quibble about words like “shortage,” it’s fair to criticize Sowell’s use of the word “unlimited” to describe the supply of farm workers coming from Mexico. If the supply of workers in agriculture was truly unlimited, or infinite, the wage would be 0. Furthermore, Americans are not “looking for any kind of work.” If they were, they would be lowering their wages quite a bit more than they currently are, until they become attractive hires. Relatively sticky wages even during periods of high unemployment are evidence that people are not “looking for any kind of work.”        

Issues of economic vocabulary aside, Sowell only described one possible outcome from a reduction in the supply of low-skilled immigrant farm workers: an increase in wages. The far more likely reaction is that American farmers will stop growing crops that require many workers. Without a large supply of low-skilled immigrant farm workers, labor-intensive farming would either shrink dramatically or disappear entirely.  American farmers would either grow different crops that could be profitably harvested mechanically or stop farming. American consumers would either import fruits and vegetables that require large numbers of workers from countries where those workers are abundant, or scale back their consumption of those food stuffs. Fewer workers also means fewer consumers of these agricultural goods, decreasing demand and partly offsetting some of the increase in price that would occur from a decrease in supply. Those effects would be the economically efficient outcome if increased labor scarcity was driven by changes in the free market. In this case, however, the increase in labor scarcity would come from legislation mandating such scarcity.

Insights from labor economics help explain why the American growing of fruits and vegetables would diminish if low-skilled immigration was ended. If the marginal value of the worker’s production is greater than the wage, it is profitable for a firm to hire that employee. For example, if a worker’s marginal value product (MVP) is $10 per hour, it is profitable to employ that worker at a wage of less than $10. (If MVP = wage, the employer is indifferent assuming no transaction costs). Based on the enormous range of work and welfare options open to Americans, farmers would likely have to pay wages so high to attract enough American workers that most labor-intensive agriculture would be unprofitable. Alabama provides an example.

Furthermore, it’s hard to see why it’s desirable to increase the wages of low-productivity farm workers by increasing their scarcity. Raising the wages in occupations that don’t require a high school degree is antithetical to other aspects of public policy that seek to increase the rate of high school graduation (whether or not that is a valid concern for government). There is evidence that more immigration further incentivizes Americans to actually finish high school. The government should not create a policy designed to increase wages for low-skilled farm workers that could drive relatively higher-skilled Americans into those occupations. Since educated workers have more choices in the labor market, the effect of attracting them into lower-productivity professions through changes in policy will likely diminish economic and productivity growth.

Speaking of immigration reform proponents, Sowell states, “They say Americans won’t do these jobs. These are jobs Americans have done for generations, if not centuries.” In this instance, Sowell cherry-picks his opponent’s arguments and chooses to address the ludicrous ones while ignoring those with substance. Americans sailed wind-powered ships around the world and used horses instead of cars for centuries. That, however, is not an argument that a government law should increase the scarcity of modern ships and cars. Sowell is right that Americans could do these low-skilled agriculture jobs. We could also become hunter-gatherers again. But that does not mean that we should, if cheaper and better options are available. Sowell does not say that we should exclude low-skilled immigrants but his tone and the conspicuous absence of him criticizing economically ignorant arguments from the anti-immigration-reform side are serious indications of his opinions on the issue.         

Furthermore, Sowell is right that the economy would adjust to a decrease in the supply of low-skilled labor, but he fails to mention that it would do so by shrinking. The economy would likewise adjust if the American government declared that electricity was illegal or all imports were banned. Arguing that the economy would adjust to artificially created scarcity does not justify creating such scarcity through government fiat.     

Immigration restrictions increase labor scarcity, especially in niches of the labor market where relatively few Americans work. The main effect of increasing labor scarcity by further restricting the supply of low-skilled immigrant workers will not be to raise the wages of Americans, thereby drawing them to pick crops; it would be to kill large portions of the agricultural sector and other portions of the economy that demand large numbers of relatively low-skilled workers to operate most efficiently and profitably. 

Sowell’s surface explanation of how wages would adjust without low-skilled immigration, which leaves out how the economy would shrink and other well-known effects, is written in a way to obfuscate rather than enlighten. On this issue, Sowell ignores the lessons he has developed throughout his career, and instead seems to support extensive government interventions (his writing is cagey enough that he could claim to not support any policies, but the tone is clear enough) with little evidence besides anecdotes.

Burkean arguments for institutional inertia

In my last post, I blegged about the strongest arguments for the moral relevance of countries, i.e. for the idea that a person’s country of origin or citizenship is relevant in answering evaluative questions, such as whether a person has a right to accept a job or rent property somewhere.

As I predicted in my bleg, some commenters have diagnosed me with outrageous naïveté for asking such a question. Another thing I could have predicted is that some people would find my explicit use of the term “morality” jarring. In my experience, a very interesting thing often happens in ethical discussions: People who routinely make strong evaluative statements, say, about the morality of military interventions or of different kinds of healthcare policies, suddenly convert to radical moral scepticism when a moral proposition is raised the merit of which they do not wish to consider. It seems to me that the state of common discourse is astonishingly lenient toward such double standards, which could be termed selective radical moral scepticism. I am well aware that the field of meta-ethics is direly lacking in any kind of consensus, but I am sure that most moral philosophers would at least agree that we should be consistent in whether or not we are radical moral sceptics.

Some of the reactions I got to the post, in the comment thread and elsewhere, motivate me to formulate the following distinction: the moral relevance of countries is distinct from the moral relevance of the fact that most people treat countries as morally relevant. This can appear nit-picky in some contexts. If you present an argument along the lines that the world is currently at equilibrium in a state where certain borders are near-universally recognised, and that disrespecting those borders could lead to large-scale violence, it seems reasonable to then say that “countries are therefore morally relevant”. To then counter this statement with the above distinction may seem like mere semantics. To appreciate that the distinction is worth making even here, simply consider the perfect intelligibility of this claim: “Prudence requires that we respect existing immigration laws because most people wrongly consider countries morally relevant”. Regardless of whether this statement is true, I hope it makes it clear that the prevalence of the belief in the moral relevance of countries can be morally relevant without countries being themselves morally relevant, and that pointing out the prevalence of moral belief X should not end the conversation on whether X is true. The ambition of Open Borders: The Case is to change people’s minds about some very widely held beliefs, including moral beliefs.

Personally, I think that by far the strongest answer  to my bleg was given by Bryan Pick. I do not know to what extent Bryan agrees with the argument he proposed (I understand he is on the side of open borders), as he was answering my bleg about strong arguments for a certain position and not necessarily expressing his own views. That being said:

Bryan explicitly referenced Edmund Burke at the beginning of his comment, and the type of argument he presented is what I’m referring to, in the title, as a Burkean argument for institutional inertia, or even, beyond that, a Burkean argument for the moral authority of institutions. Similarly to Leslie Orgel‘s Second Rule, “Evolution is cleverer than you are”, this Burkean type of argument could be summarised by the slogan “Institutions are cleverer than you are”. The idea is that institutions are time-tested, complex products of intricate evolutionary processes involving widely distributed information very different from what any individual person’s mind is suited to grasp or design. This perspective gives support to the attitude I alluded to above, according to which anyone who demands explicit intellectual arguments for established social norms must be disparagingly naïve – not in that they have missed any obvious arguments, but in that they think human argumentative powers more wise than time-tested institutions. The distinction between intellectual attitudes that rely more on the authority of institutions and those that rely more on explicit argumentation is also at the heart of Thomas Sowell‘s distinction between the Constrained Vision and the Unconstrained Vision of human nature, which he has argued is the key defining factor of the political divide between Left and Right. Adherents to the Constrained Vision need only point to the disasters brought about by social engineering to put their emphasis on humility in the face of long-standing traditions on a sound footing. (See also, however, this essay by Bryan Caplan, which is critical of Sowell’s distinction and emphasises, in particular, that many ideologies meant to be imposed from the top down, such as fascism, are not a product of rational deliberation.)

Bryan [Pick] completes his proposed argument:

Now, whether this significance extends to “such questions as where one may rent property and work” depends on an extra step. Perhaps an aspect of strategic dominance is that the local population and government are suited to each other, because of hard-won stabilization in communities via a common language, norms, etc., and outsiders can cause a sort of friction. It’s easy to take for granted how much shared conventions and etiquette (like hand signals or line queuing) make life smoother and less confrontational. [Go read the rest in his comment.]

This is good stuff, and it meshes very nicely with what I have in mind for my future post about countries and equilibrium states that I mentioned in my last post.

I think this Burkean line of argument is important. I completely agree with the proposition that it would be naïve and reckless to dismiss existing institutions simply because we cannot formulate any rationale for them that might nonetheless exist. But it is also important to note that, just as easily as the exclusive reliance on intellectual arguments in designing ways of structuring society from the top down can be reduced ad absurdum by pointing to the disastrous outcomes of socialist experiments (be they Marxist or fascist or otherwise), the exclusive reliance on the authority of institutions can be reduced ad absurdum by pointing to any of the institutions that existed over long periods of time in the past that are now widely recognised as having been viciously immoral: think slavery, witch hunts, torture, border wars…

Similarly to the point I made above about flip-flopping between moral realism and radical moral scepticism, I would also caution the reader to take to heart a criticism Vipul has made of Thomas Sowell in an insightful answer on Quora: It is tempting to alternate between reliance on the authority of institutions and reliance on intellectual arguments, depending on which happens to better serve your position, and Sowell himself may have proven not to be immune from this. I do not expect much disagreement from proponents of either of the two Visions when I say that the authority of institutions and intellectual argumentation are both important. Steven Pinker‘s writings on the psychology of politics, beginning in The Blank Slate, have also drawn on Thomas Sowell’s distinction between the two Visions, and he has made a strong case in The Better Angels of Our Nature for the importance of what he refers to as the Civilizing Process (which relies on institutional constraints) and Enlightenment Humanism (which relies on reason), two historical processes that are seemingly at odds with each other but that he argues need not be alternatives.

Delving a bit deeper now, I want to pick up the distinction I briefly mentioned above, between “Burkean arguments for institutional intertia” and “Burkean arguments for the moral authority of institutions”. This is, again, related to another distinction I have made above, between the argument that it is dangerous to offset existing equilibria, and the argument that the existing equilibrium is morally just. It is perfectly consistent to argue that it would be imprudent (and therefore morally irresponsible) to disrespect or abandon existing institutions while also maintaining that the institutions in question are immoral (see this post by Vipul for a discussion of the difference between philosophical and political anarchism, for instance). After all, changing institutions in a directed way involves serious coordination problems. Such change is more likely to be safe and successful if it happens through a more organic process, which involves changing many individual people’s minds (again, precisely what we are trying to do here at Open Borders).

In their weaker form, Burkean arguments do not say anything more than that. However, as Bryan also mentioned in his comment, the argument can be taken further: The evolutionary processes that shape our institutions may not just provide us with stable social organisations within which to live and prosper, but  might also be a source of moral knowledge.

To what extent this is the case is, it seems to me, a big question that our evolved psychology renders difficult to consider rationally. Status quo bias is generally considered a cognitive fallacy, even though the evolutionary rationale of this bias seems fairly clear. People with conservative sensibilities may be inclined to think of institutions as defining what is morally right, however this would seem to lead to a species of moral relativism, which I think quickly runs into insurmountable problems (this shan’t be the place for me to discuss this further).

All this raises the question of what is the right “mix” of intellectual argumentation and deference to the wisdom of institutions. It seems to me that those two things have qualitatively different roles to play: the former provides arguments directly, whereas the latter provides evidence that there is some kind of rationale for certain ways of organising society. Note that the structure of Bryan’s comment is to first make the general Burkean argument for assuming that institutions are the way they are for important reasons, even if those reasons elude us; he then proceeds to the intellectual exercise of  unpacking this initially elusive rationale, through a mixture of speculation and of historical argumentation to test his speculations against empirical evidence. In so doing, he ends up sketching out a candidate for a consequentialist moral argument for certain kinds of migration restrictions. I think the argument he proposes requires more empirical work to be made compelling, but it is a very serious start.

Moreover, this general structure of “Burkean reasoning” provides us with something of a research agenda, aimed at uncovering the rationale behind long-standing institutions.  It seems to me that it is only in so doing that we can discover whether this rationale has anything to teach us about morality (remember the distinction between the prudential presumption against offsetting an equilibrium and the moral justness of the equilibrium). Regarding the question of migration, it seems highly relevant to note that the institution of countries goes back a much longer way than migration restrictions as they exist today. Chris’ planned series “How Did We Get Here?” on the historical origins of immigration restrictions thus fits rather beautifully with this proposed research agenda, and it could lead to the uncovering of profound moral truths as well as to the demystification of evolutionary gridlocks or by-products.

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?” »