Saturday, November 5, 2011

a conservative argument for immigration

Last week Matt Yglesias suggestively alluded to a "national greatness" case for more immigration. This, or at least a more generally conservative case for increased immigration is something I've wanted to write for a while. My own passion for removing barriers to migration come from the more bleeding heart libertarian concerns of 1) greater personal liberty for migrants and natives who would like to peacefully interact with those migrants and 2) the trillions of dollars of potential poverty alleviation. So take this in the spirit of a semi-Ideological Turing test, if you will. I say "semi" because I'm just offering different arguments for a policy I do support, but still, I want to get the motivations roughly right.

Yglesias presents this map of world population density, noting that India and China have a lot of people and they're getting richer all the time. That means that in a short while their economies will dwarf that of the United States. To wax Hegelian, this means India and China will dominate the world historical stage; the story of world history will be the stories of India and China, for better or worse. This is the national greatness case for greater immigration: keep birth rates at or above the replacement rate and throw open the gates to increase the number of Americans. A nation of one billion Americans, with our head start in technology and productivity, can balance the rising powers in the east. We can then extend (what we like to think of as) our historically benevolent influence on world affairs well into the foreseeable future.

The skeptical conservative might balk at this, suggesting that opening up the gates to a bunch of Chinese is not a good way to curb China's relative influence in the world. I suppose conquest of a democratic state through immigration is possible, but it is hardly a plausible in the light of America's history. America has had for long stretches effectively open borders, and in every case incoming immigrant communities have assimilated--learned English and adopted American institutions and culture in just a couple generations. The conservative spin I suggest is this: immigration is a way of making more Americans. Few people worry now about the fate of the Republic in the hands of swarms of Italians or Irish or Germans or Japanese now. This isn't because those populations were successfully got rid of; it is because they are Americans now. For the sake of the paranoid conservative, an open immigration policy can be combined with stricter assimilation requirements as well.

In principle this applies to Europe as well. While EU enlargement isn't big on anyone's agenda at the moment, one can view admission of new nations into the EU as a way of wrapping those nations within the customs and institutions of the Europe. My impression is that much of the opposition to allowing, say, Turkey into the EU comes from fears that teeming Muslim Turks will threaten the liberal, secular society the western European nations have fashioned for themselves. But, as in the case of US immigration (or for that matter a North American economic union), the current EU nations have a better bargaining position and are more likely to make Turkey more secular and more liberal than vice versa.


  1. First of all, Yglesias' argument doesn't work on the merits as neither China nor India will become great powers in the 21st century as their respective economies are on pace to exhaust their fresh water resources over the next few decades. In fact, lack of access to fresh water will probably destabilize the whole of Asia sometime before the middle of this century. America certainly doesn't need to siphon away an abundance of people from those regions in order to sustain her relative level of "national greatness" on the global stage anytime soon.

    Secondly, all of Yglesias' arguments in favor of expanding current levels of immigration are advanced on a wholly cynical basis. To wit, the political left in the liberal democratic West has caught on to the fact that more immigration means more votes for their candidates hence more political power for themselves. If greater levels of immigration to America meant more votes for the Republicans you can bet your life that a second-rate partisan political hack like Yglesias would be advancing a very different set arguments about how we desperately need to reduce current levels of immigration.

    Anyway, your bleeding libertarian heart would be put to much better use trying to figure out how to solve the coming water crisis that will take place in your lifetime on the principle that no one cares about abstract political freedoms when their dying of thirst.


  2. Anonymous, I have no way of knowing whether India or China (or Bangladesh, etc) will destroy themselves by inadequately managing their resources and neither do you. I have a feeling nothing I might argue would be deemed persuasive. But I think that economic development and a growing GDP translate into better capacities for solving all kinds of problems, including resource management. And more people means more brains thinking about solutions.

    As to your second point, unless you have pretty intimate access to Yglesias' psyche, I don't see how you can be so sure he favors immigration to benefit his favored political party. He's never struck me as particularly beholden to the Democratic party. His routine denunciations of occupational licensing seems to argue against a simple party line checklist. And it's not at all clear to me that more immigrants necessarily must benefit Democrats. Many Mexicans are devout, family-oriented, and quite socially conservative ...