The US: A Special Case for Open Borders
I respect the point that Will made last week in his post arguing against open borders and for a sort of mild restrictionism. Will sums his argument up thusly:
So the West is both successful and difficult to emulate (I suspect this would be true even if we could identify the exact precursors to liberal democratic capitalism). This suggests that the best poverty alleviation program is to let as many people across the border as possible to share the fruits of our historical good fortune. On the other hand, the frailty and complexity of the Western model suggests that a massive influx of foreigners could place an unbearable strain on the social, cultural, and political norms that allow the United States to function. In short, the very complexity that makes us so difficult to emulate also makes it difficult to absorb wave after wave of new arrivals.
There is a lot of surface plausibility to this, particularly if you accept the assumption that the Western model is frail and complex.** Rapid changes to social, cultural, and political norms arising from a sudden, massive influx of foreigners – especially non-Western foreigners – could certainly pose a threat to a given Western country’s ability to remain a cohesive liberal institution. Moreover, if the cohesion and comparative liberalism of Scandinavia or the Low Countries or whatever is largely a function of the norms, the sense of nationhood if you will, that have developed over the centuries in those countries, then anything that would tend to dilute that sense of nationhood would be a threat to cohesion and stability.
But I don’t think this line of thinking can really apply to the United States, and particularly with respect to the primary source of immigrants that the US now faces. Here’s why:
- Our cultural norms in the United States are directly tied to the notion that the US is a “nation of immigrants.” Indeed, perhaps more than any other factor, this notion is what distinguishes the United States from other liberal democracies. Our very sense of nationhood is tied up in the fact that American culture is, for the most part, not terribly set in stone. Even if we don’t consciously accept that our national identity is intrinsically tied up in the “nation of immigrants” history, that history has ensured that our cultural, social, and political norms are remarkably flexible. Outside of perhaps rural Appalachia, we don’t have a lot of traditions that go back much more than a century, and as a country we’ve never been dominated by a single religious sect in the way that, say, Scandinavians are likely to be Lutherans, Italians to be Catholics, etc. The traditions that we do have also tend to constantly change and adapt to new circumstances.
- We are a massive country, both in terms of geography and population. We are currently a nation of over 300 million people; including illegal immigrants, we seem to average about 1.3 million immigrants per year, or less than half of one percent of our total population in a given year. Compare this to just about the entire period during our immigration boom between 1880 and 1930, when an average of half a million legal immigrants arrived every year into a country with a population of between 50 million and 123 million, meaning that, for virtually the entirety of this period, fresh immigrants were a larger percentage of the population than in any year now. Between 1900 and 1910, the average annual rate of immigration as a percentage of the existing population was indeed almost triple the current rate. While it’s not worth pretending that this period was all sunshine and roses, the point is that the American system survived intact. By comparison, a substantial influx of immigrants could theoretically have a dramatic impact on a geographically and demographically smaller country. There’s no reason to think that a more-or-less open borders policy in the US would result in such a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants that they’d be less capable of assimilation than was the case at the high point of immigration.
- The immigrants most likely to come to the United States in the foreseeable future fit well within the existing American culture. Obviously, those far and away most likely to come to the United States nowadays are from Central and South America. These immigrants are particularly likely to be Catholic (a denomination that already has the largest following in the US), and to have at least some history living in a semi-functioning representative democracy. They are also coming from countries that have largely fallen within the historic American sphere of influence. And, of course, there have long been sizable non-immigrant Latino communities within the US that long ago started to leave their mark on American culture. Yes, there are cultural differences, including language barriers, but Latino immigrants have significantly less of a cultural gap to bridge than, say, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, or Catholic immigrants from Poland and Italy, or Chinese immigrants in earlier periods of American history.
In short, to the extent the American-specific “model” is indeed fragile and complex, its success has long been predicated on the dynamism of the constantly changing demographic makeup by large-scale immigration. There is often a tendency, when one discusses the old “melting pot” analogy, to view the US as a giant assimilation machine. What I think we tend to forget about this is that, although immigrants to the US do typically assimilate, this process is made significantly easier by the fact that the US tends to adopt part of that immigrant culture as its own. American culture is, quite often, little more than the amalgamation of various immigrant cultures. Limitations on the number of immigrants we can accept thus do more harm than good to the American “model” by depriving it of some of the oxygen upon which that model has thrived, perhaps even causing it to stagnate.
**I don’t accept this assumption, but I wouldn’t know how to refute it, either, at least not as applied to the Old World West. So, for purposes of this piece, I’ll accept the assumption as valid with respect to those countries.