Sometimes fate tosses you a softball.
Recently, I drafted an op-ed asking whether the United States actually needs more people. Is 320 million—give or take, given the birthrates of those already here—enough? If not, why not? If we need more people, why? What do we need them to do? The editorial process being what it is, it took a few days for the piece to appear.
And it just so happens that, when it did, Bret Stephens published a column in the New York Times purporting to answer precisely the question I had asked. The United States needs more immigrants, he claims. A lot more.
Much of what Stephens wrote, I had already “pre-butted,” as it were. Open borders arguments are all so old and stale that they’re easy to anticipate. Still, to give Stephens some credit, he did come up with some new ones. Or rather, he stated more openly than I am used to seeing certain implicit arguments that the open borders crowd until recently used to be more cagey about expressing.
I don’t know what explains their greater boldness now. It could be that they think they are on the cusp of victory, so caution is no longer necessary. I doubt this, however, given the 2016 election and moving of the Overton Window on the topic. A more likely explanation is that the open borders crowd is panicking. Before Trump’s stunning victory, mass amnesty coupled with even laxer border enforcement (if such were even possible) seemed likely to tip the country blue permanently. Now they sense that may be slipping away—or, at a minimum, may be delayed.
The populace is roused. For the first time in a generation, it actually has political leaders trying to act in their interest. That is intolerable to the open borders crowd, which is reacting with fury and hysteria. Witness the disgraceful Red Guard heckling of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen out of a public restaurant—and the restaurant’s management doing nothing about it. Another restaurant’s owner kicked out the president’s press secretary. And there is the far more disgraceful—downright evil—doxing of federal immigration agents by a university professor, to encourage left-wing brownshirts to harm civil servants and their families.
Who Should Go?
It is fair to ask what role the increasingly extreme rhetoric of Bret Stephens (and of others who share his views) has contributed to this. For instance, one of Stephens’ previous columns recommended expelling native-born American citizens to make room for more immigrants. He declined to say exactly which American citizens need to go; presumably not himself nor any of his friends and associates.
Who then? In a grotesque-yet-clever bit of sophistry, Stephens unfavorably compares the native-born to immigrants across a range of pathologies and finds us wanting. For instance, the native-born “are incarcerated at nearly twice the rate of illegal immigrants.” What accounts for that? Stephens doesn’t specify, but surely knows, that crime rates vary widely by race. The rate among blacks, for instance, is eight or nine times the rate among whites, depending on the offense. The white rate is much lower than the illegal immigrant rate (and the Asian rate is lower still). Hence that “nearly twice the rate” that Stephens cites is very largely driven by black Americans. Whatever one may say about the tragic problems afflicting black communities, they are unquestionably Americans, whose roots in this land stretch back to 1619 and whose experience includes, in Lincoln’s poignant phrase, “two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.”
Stephens makes a similar point about illegitimacy—and similarly fails to mention that the black and Hispanic illegitimacy rates drive the overall U.S. rate that he finds so deplorable. The white and Asian rates are, again, far lower than the immigrant rate.
So: is Stephens suggesting that blacks be expelled from America? That Hispanics be deported en masse? That’s where the logic of his argument inexorably leads, as he also surely knows. But we readers surely know—and are meant to know—this is not what he means. Talk of expelling “people of color” from the land of their birth, from a country in which they are citizens, is unthinkable anywhere in today’s respectable discourse. Covertly using the problems of such people as a cudgel with which to bash the demographic group that Stephens really hates—that’s OK!
When Mark Twain unfavorably compared statistics to “damned lies,” this kind of sophistry is what he was talking about.
This expulsion meme has become popular among the neocons.
Naïvecons and Their Contempt for Middle America
Can we pause for a moment? It’s high time to admit that there is no longer anything conservative, if there ever was, about the current crop of “neoconservatives.” About the founding generation—absolutely. They helped to revolutionize social science and win the Cold War, among many other achievements. Their work will stand tall and hold up for decades to come, I predict.
But today’s crop is, or has relapsed into being, leftists pure and simple—ideologically and practically. Ideologically, they all want open borders and unending immigration. Try as they might to invent one, there is no “conservative case” for a social experiment this vast, risky, and transformative. Practically, they make common cause with the left every day, in every way, to demonize their former friends and to prevent conservative policy from being enacted.
They need a new name. I’m fond of “naïvecon” myself. The only flaw I see with it is that it retains the “con,” which they manifestly don’t deserve. I remain open to suggestion.
Anyway, as I was saying, the expulsion meme has become popular among the naïvecons. They are increasingly frank about who they’d like to expel: the more rural you are, the redder your state (not to mention your neck), the lower your income, the more working class your background, the more you cling to guns and God, the more you vote Republican, the more you deserve the boot.
American columnists, in prestige American journals, daydreaming about forced, mass population transfers: this is ugly stuff, even as a joke. But coming from where it comes, it raises no eyebrows. No price is paid. For those on the actual Right, a single ill-chosen word can end a career and ruin a life. Merely arguing that the United States enforce existing laws is to be called a Nazi, heckled in public, and picketed at one’s home. But the pro-illegal immigrant, anti-native-born Left can vent their spleens and prosper.
The one thing I will say for the current year’s naïvecon boldness: it’s clarifying. Now we know where we all stand. Trump voters, take heed: Bret Stephens and his friends hate you. They despise you. They hold you in contempt. They want you kicked out of your own country and replaced by foreigners. They are your enemy.
As we have seen, Stephens occasionally (but less and less) attempts to give his animosity a statistical gloss. His most recent column is a case in point. If he can’t actually expel the people he despises, he will do the next best thing and overwhelm them with newcomers who, he insists, deserve to be here more than they do.
Naïvecons’ Arguments for More Immigrants
Stephens gives six reasons why the United States “needs” more immigrants. Three I dealt with in my earlier column, one I was aware of but didn’t have the space to treat, another is just a recapitulation of Stephens’ contempt for the native-born, and the other, while not new, is a clearer statement of a certain idea than I have ever seen.
Declining Fertility: Stephens begins with fertility. He asserts that high fertility is good without saying why. Is high fertility always better? Stephens points to the shopworn example of Japan, making the tired point about Japan’s “economic decline.”
Let’s go through this in order. It is certainly true that sustained low fertility can be bad for a nation. But the United States is not anywhere near that point and in fact—as I noted in my earlier piece—remains near the top of fertility rates in the developed world. Yes, some of that is owing to immigration, but birthrates for the native-born are also higher here than in other developed countries.
Malthus may have been wrong in a lot of particulars, but he was surely right that no land—no finite territory with finite resources—can sustain unending population growth in perpetuity. One of the reasons—perhaps the reason—foreigners want to come to America is because their homelands are overcrowded, resources so stressed by population growth, that living standards remain very low, and in some cases even have declined. (The Philippines and Egypt are two examples of the this.)
This is not to say that America’s birth rate is perfect as-is. And I will acknowledge that it appears to be trending downward. But Stephens does not acknowledge—perhaps he does not know—that this trend is universal throughout the developed world. The richer and more technologically advanced a population becomes, the fewer babies it has. This trend transcends race, culture, religion, region and any factor you can think of. Even theocratic but relatively sophisticated Iran has a low—and falling—birthrate. (I recommend the fine work of Jonathan Last on these points.)
Stephens similarly says nothing about the effects of feminism and the Sexual Revolution, which arguably have done more than all the riches in the world to suppress birth rates—by delaying marriage, decoupling procreation from sex, and emphasizing career over family.
How then can immigration reverse the worldwide downward trend? There are only two possible outcomes. Either the immigrants will assimilate to developed world norms and consumption levels, in which case their birth rates will decline along with the rest of the developed world and we will be back where we started. Or they won’t, in which case the more foreign-born America becomes, it will also become less developed, less technologically advanced, less rich. But, hey, at least our birth rates will be high! Is that the America Stephens wants?
Perhaps there is a third possibility: somehow, we come up with the precise mix of policy fixes and cultural messaging to reverse the birth dearth in the developed world. But if we figure out how to do that, then we don’t need immigrants for the purpose.
Whichever of these outcomes you think most likely doesn’t matter. They all negate Stephens’ argument.
Nor does Stephens acknowledge immigration’s effects in driving native birth rates down. Immigration pushes down wages by increasing the supply of labor. Poorer people, to the extent that they are responsible, have fewer children. Immigration pushes up housing prices and rents by increasing demand. Americans, at least since the Lower East Side went hipster, prefer not to cram children into two-room railroad flats. They want space. When they can’t afford it, they have fewer kids. Immigration stresses public schools by filling them with non-English speakers who must consume a disproportionate share of time and resources. This further bids up housing prices in public school districts without, or with fewer of, such problems, or else forces parents who can’t or don’t want to move to pay for expensive private schools. And, again, more expensive means fewer kids.
Regarding Japan’s alleged “economic decline”: Compared to what? The peak of the Tokyo property bubble in 1989? Certainly, Japan’s growth rate over the past quarter century has been lackluster compared with America’s. But—apart from the Great Recession, when the whole world’s economy temporarily contracted—Japan has not actually declined. Per capita GDP remains behind America’s, but when measured not against the whole population but per working-age adult—a key measure of productivity—Japan’s is higher than ours. Perhaps that has something to do with Japan’s relative lack of hedge fund and high-tech oligarchs whose titanic fortunes inflate America’s economic statistics while doing nothing for American workers. Consider also that CEO pay in Japan averages one-tenth that of their American counterparts.
Anecdotally, let me add that I’ve been to Japan a number of times as a tourist and on business. The country looks remarkably “first world” with a very advanced economy, well-developed goods and services, superb infrastructure (better than ours), and technology that makes parts of our country look like the Flintstones compared to their Jetsons. Standards of living are very high, with one major exception: living space. Japan’s birthrate is indeed low. But wouldn’t raising it exacerbate that particular problem? Which in any case is overwhelmingly the result of geography: it’s hard to house more than 100 million people in a rocky archipelago. Perhaps—in addition to the downward pressures experienced in all advanced nations—Japan’s fertility rate is dropping also owing to the Japanese people’s sentiment that their country got a mite too crowded and they’d prefer a little more space.
In any case, Japan is very far from the dystopia that Stephens and the rest of the open borders crowd so often portray it. If a future more like Japan in key respects is what we Americans can expect from getting immigration under control, sign me up.
Societal Aging: The second reason Stephens cites for needing more immigrants—societal aging—is really just a restatement of his first. Low birth rates lead to aging societies. Once again, he doesn’t say why this is bad. But this argument is made so often that we know where it leads. The implication is that we “need” more workers to shore up our entitlement system. This argument fails on a number of levels. First, those who study entitlements most closely insist that the system is unsustainable even with a vastly larger U.S. population. Promised benefits are too generous, they kick in too early, the Baby Boomer generation is too large, and modern lifespans are too long. We could cram 600 million people into the United States and still not solve the problem.
But we would create a lot of other problems!
This points to the second reason this argument fails. It implicitly accepts (some actually make it explicit) that, unreformed, Social Security and other entitlements are Ponzi schemes. In other words, unreformed, they only “work” so long as workers (the young) always outnumber retirees (the old). Always. In other words, they work only so long as the population never stops growing. Never. Does a future America in which the population is counted in the billions sound good to you? Do you think the carrying capacity of the 50 states and their resources is infinite? You don’t have to be Malthusian to see that answer to both is an emphatic “No!”
It’s both obvious and tautological that any finite space can only house so many people. Even if you are willing to accept dramatic declines in living standards (which overpopulation would certainly cause), you eventually run out of space, water, clean air, food and the land on which to grow it, to support a population at any standard of living. Endless population growth, then, cannot possibly be the solution to the entitlement problem. At some point sanity, necessity and self-interest all require that the American population stabilize. We will have to come up with a way to solve our fiscal problems without endlessly increasing the population.
Third, taxing working immigrants to finance the retirements of the native-born is to invite social strife, to say the least. In an increasingly balkanized country—something the left seems to seek, by constantly pushing open borders and attacking assimilation—ethnic and other groups increasingly see themselves as loyal above all to their group and indifferent to, if not suspicious of, other groups. Intergenerational wealth transfers only work if the whole citizenry conceives of itself as one body, one group. Otherwise, such transfers can breed resentment. The more the U.S. population embraces identity politics, the more younger generations will ask of American retirees “Why am I paying for your condo in Boca?” The native-born young are already beginning to ask this question. If we keep the borders open to finance entitlements, that sentiment will not only increase but increasingly take on a racialist tone. How is it fair that poor people of color subsidize rich whites?
Finally, even if we could solve the fiscal deficits of our entitlement programs through immigration (or other means), those programs would still pose political problems that demand reform. The extent to which entitlements and the expectations they arouse have corrupted our politics is considerable and cannot be overcome by even the most effective fiscal solution.
Jobs Americans “Won’t Do”: From here, Stephens moves on to the most tired cliché of all: crops rotting in the fields!
No, really: “The New American Economy think tank estimates that the number of farm workers fell by 20 percent between 2002 and 2014, accounting for $3 billion a year in revenue losses.” Far be it from me to question the veracity, methodology or motive of a study from a think tank founded and paid for by billionaires-for-open-borders. Instead, I will merely ask the following: did those $3 billion in “revenue losses” in any way translate to famine, malnutrition, food shortages or even hunger in America? Because if so, I missed it. Or was that $3 billion merely potential profits that big ag had to forgo because farmers couldn’t pound down wages low enough?
Either way, the period under discussion was hardly one of low immigration. For all 12 of those years, the executive branch was run by two presidents determined to encourage as much immigration as possible and to do nothing to secure the border or enforce U.S. law. Even with that calculated laxity and commensurately high levels of legal and illegal immigration, crops still rotted in the fields, according to the cited study. It’s enough to make you wonder if there are enough farm workers in the entire world sufficient to collect all those crops allegedly out there rotting.
Immigrants Won’t Repopulate the Heartland: Stephens’ fourth argument is we need people to repopulate dying small towns in the heartland. But surely Stephens knows that immigrants concentrate in coastal cities (“coast” being defined more broadly to include the Gulf and the Great Lakes) and venture into the heartland only when steered there by Big Ag. The same forces depopulating the heartland apply just as much to immigrants as to the native-born. Which is why immigrants prefer blue megalopolises (among other reasons).
And, like the crops-rotting-in-the-field canard, this proposition is also testable. America has been welcoming millions of legal and illegal immigrants per year since the 1965 Immigration Act. Where have those people mostly settled? Not the heartland. And throughout this period that same heartland steadily has been depopulating. If immigration were the key to repopulating it, how could that be?
Do We Have Too Few Immigrants? The Moral Case: Stephens’ fifth argument is the most revealing. He finds the immigrant share of the population too low. He does not say why that is bad, or why a higher share is good. He simply compares the current share to the late 19th century Ellis Island peak, finds the latter higher, and asserts that this alone proves the former is wanting.
Underlying the assumption that the U.S. population must have always have a high proportion of immigrants is an implicit (and increasingly explicit) claim that the moral legitimacy of the United States rests on its treatment of immigrants. If and when we take a lot, we are good. When we don’t, we are bad. This view would require us to condemn large periods of American history, including a great many American heroes who expressed reservations about unchecked immigration.
I expect that, after the last Confederate statue falls, the immigration skeptics will be next. Shall we blast Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt off Mount Rushmore—our American Buddhas of Bamiyan? We will also have to either discard or retcon America’s stunning victory in World War II, coming as it did during a 40-year immigration moratorium. Oh, and also the Civil Rights Movement. And the New Deal. And the Kennedy Administration. And the Great Society. Sorry, liberals, but immigration is a jealous God!
Stephens gives away the game toward the end, where he declares that opposition to further immigration is “un-American.” That would be a surprise to the people who actually founded America, all of whom expressed considerable skepticism about the wisdom of unchecked immigration and warned future generations to be careful in choosing who, and how many, people to admit into the land.
Will Stephens go so far as to call Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, and Jefferson himself “un-American”? His argument requires it.
Stephens repeats another lazy canard, namely that America is a “nation of immigrants.” This is true only insofar as every nation is a nation of immigrants, in that no human population was ever born directly from the soil beneath their feet, a la the lie that Socrates says in Plato’s Republic will have to be told to the citizens of the perfect city.
In America’s case, our country is not a “nation of immigrants” in two senses, one historical, the other theoretical. In the former sense, it is more accurate to call America, initially, a nation of settlers. A settler is not an immigrant. A settler builds ex nihilo and must form the initial social compact. An immigrant seeks to join a society already built, to join a compact already made.
Which points to the second sense. Like all free nations, America is a social compact made up of citizens who consent to form a political community. The formation of that compact is far clearer in the case of the United States than it was in, say, France. But in terms of the way the compact operates, there is no difference. The people consent to live together under a common government. That government governs only its citizens, not their neighbors or the rest of the world. The members of the compact may, by mutual consent, choose to admit others to it. Or they may not. The fact that some members of the compact—either originally or later—may have joined after exiting another compact (i.e., after emigrating from another country) does not confer any special status on later would-be immigrants. For the compact to have any meaning—for the government to have any legitimacy or coherence—it cannot be subject to the wishes of anyone who wants to join no matter the wishes of the compact’s existing members.
The wisest thing Donald Trump ever said—and he has said many wise things—is “We don’t have a country without a border.” To which I would add: America is not the common property of all mankind. It belongs to the Americans, and we alone get to determine who may—and who may not—become one of us.
Stephens tries to deny to the sovereign American people our right to determine who may join our country by transforming more immigration into a moral imperative. But contra Stephens, there is no imperative—moral or otherwise—for boosting the immigrant share of our population higher. The fact that it’s lower than Stephens would like is no more an argument for raising it than is the fact that I would like to see it lower an argument for lowering it. The immigrant share of the population is something that the citizen-body must deliberate about and decide how high or low it ought to be. Just because previous generations of Americans chose to augment the population by welcoming immigrants does not make such welcoming forever obligatory or give any would-be immigrants a special right to come here. There is no coherent conception of the rights of man in which immigration is a civil right Americans owe to all foreigners.
Do We Have Too Few Immigrants? The Economic Case: Stephens tries to supplement the implicit moral argument with an economic rationale, citing data which shows “the powerful correlation between high levels of immigration and sustained economic dynamism.” Leaving aside the question of what “economic dynamism” is—growth? productivity? innovation?—this argument is reminiscent of the only-immigrants-can-save-us claim about entitlements.
Recall the unspoken premise of that claim: the need for more immigrants never abates. Population growth to infinity and beyond! That same premise underlies this claim. If economies can never be “dynamic” without immigrants, then dynamism requires endless immigration. What happens when all the people in the non-dynamic countries have already moved to the dynamic ones? What then to keep the dynamism going? Stephens, as we have seen, is not above recommending forced population transfers. Is that what he has in mind?
In any case, the claim that economic dynamism requires immigration is patently absurd and disproved by dozens of examples. East Asian countries, for instance, take few to no immigrants and their economies are hardly static. Even economic powerhouses with a lot of immigrants, such as Germany, are not powerhouses because of the immigrants. The crown jewel of the German economy, its high-value manufacturing export sector, is run almost entirely by ethnic Germans. Perhaps Stephens has the causation exactly backward. Maybe the reason that immigration correlates with economic dynamism is not because immigration causes economic dynamism but because economic dynamism—i.e., wealth—attracts immigrants. Has Stephens considered this possibility?
Stephens’ last argument is simply a restatement of his hatred of ordinary flyover Americans, especially Republicans and Trump voters. He explicitly calls them un-American and morons, and indirectly calls them immoral and antisemites. He concluded his earlier column with a stunning restatement of the Vietnam-era slogan “America: Love it or Leave it” once so loathed by the Left. “Americans,” he wrote, “who don’t get [that we’re a country of immigrants] should get out.”
Here, finally, I find a narrow but perhaps encouraging basis for partial agreement. Stephens hates and does not want to live with anyone who will not submit to his superior wisdom and accept open borders. I suspect that more than a few of those he hates would be relieved not to have to live with Stephens, either.
But why should they be the ones to have to leave? There are many of them but only one Stephens. Or stretch the point to include the entire open borders commentariat; that’s still a very small number. Or stretch the point further to include the leadership of the Democratic Party, the intellectual class, and open-borders oligarchs. They are all still vastly outnumbered by American citizens who would like their government to regain control of the nation’s borders.
Wouldn’t it be easier for the smaller group to leave? Especially since they have no means (as yet) for kicking out their inferiors, who do not seem especially eager to depart? I’m trying to be helpful here, since it’s plain how much Stephens wants to separate from the great mob he so despises. Wouldn’t Stephens be happier forming his own social compact and getting it right (in his conception) from the beginning? And not have to deal with proles, rubes, and hicks whose deformed morality he finds so offensive?
I for one would wish him well in the endeavor.