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Immigration, Yes—and No

A trimmer's case against open borders and closed minds

The Western Roman Empire officially came to an end in AD 476, with the deposition of Romulus Augustus. Many people learn that its fall came about due to invading barbarians. There is an element of truth in this, but it would be closer to reality to say that these were immigrating barbarians. For most of these groups were not setting out to conquer Roman territory; what they wanted was to become a part of the empire and to reap the advantages of its law and order and economic prosperity.

If Rome had adopted open borders, would this have fixed the problem, perhaps by making the immigration process more peaceful and less of an invasion? No—more likely the Western Empire simply would’ve been overwhelmed earlier; while the Romans were great assimilators—Spain was so Romanized that by the second century AD no legions needed to be stationed there—it took several generations for the process to work. If too many immigrants came in too fast, Roman institutions would be swamped before assimilation took place.

The Romans allowed numerous barbarian groups to come into the empire and settle. But they controlled immigration as long as they could, letting in groups of 10,000 or 20,000 or 30,000 at a time, and then directing where they could settle. Only when the Romans lost control of their borders did the influx became overwhelming and the Western Empire fall.

Similar examples are not hard to find. The native inhabitants of North America also suffered from an immigration problem, one that almost led to their extinction. The culture of Celtic England largely disappeared in the face of Germanic immigration. Today, the massive numbers of Han Chinese moving to Tibet and Xinjiang threaten to eliminate the Tibetan and Uyghur cultures. The point of these examples is not that any of them is exactly like the immigration situation in United States: there are obvious differences.

But one popular position among some on the American right today is advocacy of “open borders,” an idea whose supporters include neoconservative globalists, corporate Republicans, and many libertarians. My argument, contra those advocates of open borders, is that it certainly is possible to have too many immigrants, if one cares about the survival of one’s culture. But it is also possible to have too few. And that is why I am an immigration trimmer.


Imagine someone posing a question to a group of medical professionals: should all of your patients eat more or less food? Isn’t the question itself a bit ridiculous? A sensible doctor will say, “Neither, it depends upon the circumstances. Someone can eat too little or too much. I would need to examine the particular case of each patient.” But on the topic of immigration, many pundits seem unable to adopt this commonsensical view and instead try to treat immigration as an unalloyed good or a disease to be avoided if at all possible.

Lord Halifax sought peaceful compromise between the pro- and anti-Stuart forces threatening England with a new civil war in the late 1600s, a position he set out in a famous pamphlet, “The Character of a Trimmer.” “Trimmer” is sometimes used as a term of abuse by those prone to go to extremes themselves: the trimmer is without principles, he dodges and weaves between the stances of extremists. But I suggest that it should be thought of as a compliment. As a student of Aristotle—hardly a man without principles—I generally suspect that extreme views are expressions of vice and that the path of virtue will involve holding to a course between their hazards.

The Romans were adept trimmers. The historian Polybius praised their constitution as properly blending the virtues of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. And their pragmatism was on display in their dealings with non-Roman peoples. They knew they could not erect a huge fence at the border of their empire to keep out all who sought to enjoy its benefits, but they could, and for a long time did, control their influx so as to minimize its disruptive effects.

If we are to seek such a virtuous mean in our immigration policy, what ought we to consider? We can usefully partition the issue into three major divisions: we should look at the economic effects of immigration, the cultural effects, and the morality of allowing or forbidding immigrants into a polity.


The primary reason that people seek to move to the United States—or Britain, or Canada, or any prosperous nation—is the opportunity to achieve a better standard of living. Such a universal human aspiration surely should not be condemned. Even illegal immigrants are risking legal sanctions for an admirable motive. Why would anyone object to people trying to better their material wellbeing?

A common concern voiced by immigration foes is that immigrants will take jobs away from Americans. Certainly immigration increases the supply of workers, which might tend to lower the employment opportunities and wages of natives. But just as surely, immigration also increases the demand for workers: immigrants need houses and roads and food and schools, and someone has to supply them. So the balance here could go either way.

What’s more, there is little hard evidence that the troubles of lower- and middle-class America in recent years have been caused to any great extent by immigration. In his book Average Is Over, economist Tyler Cowen notes:

Harvard professor George Borjas, a leading critic of our current immigration policies, has presented evidence that immigrants have lowered the wages of high school dropouts, in the long run, by 4.8 percent. But the wages of many other Americans have risen … And that’s what the major immigration critic finds. Other estimates of the effects of immigration are considerably more positive in terms of the effect on American wages.

But these economic facts are true in a world with controlled immigration. Would they still hold in a world of open borders?

To understand what the result of a flood of newcomers would be, we have to ask why it is that an immigrant to the United States can better his condition by moving here from Laos or Nigeria or Nicaragua. Generally, economists agree that it’s because each worker here is backed by a much greater amount of human, social, and physical capital than would be the case in his native country. (The worker’s own human capital is identical in either situation, but that of the people he works with may be higher.) So long as not too many people are immigrating at once, this will continue to hold true.

But imagine an archipelago of 100 islands, each of which, due to the limits of their natural resources, can barely support 100 hunter-gatherers. If all of the islands but one have 100 people, and that island only has 10, then some of those on the crowded islands can benefit by moving to the emptier one. But if 90 of them do so, then the target island will simply be reduced to the same subsistence living as all of the others.

This is very much the situation of a rich country in a poorer world, except that the rich country has, chiefly, not more abundant natural capital but more abundant human, social, and physical capital. Should the United States completely open its borders, the equilibrium position we would expect is that immigration would continue until the wage differential between American workers and developing world workers disappeared.

The other thing to consider is how immigrants may change the economic policies of their new country. Franklin Roosevelt, hardly a hero to libertarian advocates of open borders, was elected in a large part because of the votes of immigrants or their sons and daughters. If, absent restrictions, many more left-leaning immigrants had entered the country before the Great Depression, who knows how far left our politics might have shifted?


But the most important effects of mass immigration are cultural, and not economic. The proponents of open-borders often note the large number of Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century have all assimilated. Ironically enough, this “pro-immigrant” view makes the immigrants passive recipients of an unchanging native culture. But not only do immigrants assimilate to the culture, the culture also assimilates to the immigrants, and the greater their number the more it does so. Given that the immigrants are not arriving from utopia or heaven—and why would anyone possibly emigrate from those places?—the changes they bring to a culture will inevitably be a mixed bag.

My own ancestors contributed to America some lively folk music, a large number of good pubs, and a huge increase in the quantity of amusing after-dinner speakers. But on the downside they also brought us Tammany Hall, increased gang violence, and perhaps worst of all, Irish cooking.

The proponents of open borders typically ignore this cultural question altogether. But a culture is created by people living together for extended periods of time, and it can only be learned after many years of immersion. (If you have a teenage child, you will viscerally understand this point.) Immigrants can assimilate to a new culture, but they cannot do so instantly. Furthermore, as their numbers increase, it becomes less likely that they will assimilate and more likely that they will swamp the native culture with their own.

European emigration to the New World is an instructive case in point: if Native Americans had been able to limit the flow of European immigrants, they might have been able to preserve their land and cultures. But, lacking the idea of territorial sovereignty, they could only deal with these immigrants through unconditional welcome or violence. When violence failed, their culture was overwhelmed, and it has largely disappeared. If we value our own culture, we might not want this to happen to it.

Similarly, highly liberal cultures such as those of the Netherlands and Norway are today dealing with the emergence of immigrant-filled, high-crime slums; nationalist parties; and anti-immigrant violence, all of which might have been avoided through better control of immigration in the first place.

We should also consider the effect of immigration on the cultures that the immigrants are coming from. What we should ultimately want for Laos, Nigeria, or Nicaragua is not that their brightest and most energetic people continually leave and become Americans but that those countries become prosperous themselves. If we really value cultural diversity, there is no substitute for these diverse cultures flourishing in their native soil.


The last of the issues on immigration is moral: given the modern consensus that no person counts for more than another one in ethical reasoning, can restrictions on immigration—which seem to privilege the existing inhabitants of a polity at the expense of those currently outside it—possibly be justified?

I quite agree that we should consider each human being to be ultimately as important as any other. But that does not mean that we, as agents situated in a particular place and time, cannot justifiably give more weight to how our acts will affect those nearer and dearer to us than those more distant. I hope that every child in the world gets a good education, but I am first and foremost responsible for seeing that my own children get one.

Aristotle disputed Plato’s communist view of how the guardians in his model republic ought to live by noting the inherent tendency for each of us to care for our own offspring. Friedrich Hayek can be seen as extending Aristotle’s insight with his stress on how each actor is best situated to evaluate his own “particular circumstances of time and place.” This applies just as much to our attempts to help others as to our efforts to best utilize factors of production: I am much more likely to be successful in my effort to help my next-door neighbor than I am likely to be in trying to help a homeless person in Latvia, because I can personally evaluate my neighbor’s circumstances, while I have little idea what are the real problems plaguing the Latvian indigent.

Open borders advocates often try to paint any regulation of immigration as deeply immoral. For instance, George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan, taking an absolutist position on immigration, writes: “Third World exile is not a morally permissible response.”

Let us set aside the fact that referring to people who are simply staying put where they are as being “exiled” is rather bizarre. What Caplan has done, in common with all ideologues, is to take a one-sided and partial truth and treat it as if it is an absolute and unconditional truth. Of course it is a good thing to help people out of Third World poverty. But again, an analogy is apropos. If, after a ship capsizes, we find ourselves on a lifeboat, surrounded by victims flailing in the water, we should save as many of them as we can. But how many is that? Only so many as will not capsize our own boat, a result that would help no one.

Poverty is not, generally speaking, the fault of those who are wealthy. (There are exceptions to this generality, such as cases where one people’s land was simply seized by another people.) While the rich have an obligation to help the poor, that obligation does not extend to the degree that they must become poor themselves.


If the above “on the one hand, but on the other hand” analysis is at all persuasive, naturally the question arises: “OK, the issue is complicated: so what should our immigration policy look like, once we acknowledge that fact?”

The first thing a good trimmer should say in response is to admit that we do not know exactly where the golden mean lies between too many immigrants and too few. But at least if we admit that both possibilities exist, we can begin to grope towards pragmatic policies that acknowledge the real truths behind the contentions of the extremists in the pro- and anti-immigration camps and attempt to guide policy with each of these partial truths in mind.

The immigration trimmer is thus likely to reject the most extreme proposals of the anti-immigration camp: giant border fences and frequent requests by law enforcement officials to “show me your papers” are threats to the freedom of every American. Here we see a practical complement to our moral case for allowing as much immigration as we can bear: not only is it right to help the less well-off when we can do so with little harm to ourselves, but it turns out to be very costly, in terms of both physical resources and lost civil liberties, to reduce immigration. Therefore, we should not try to do so until the number of immigrants becomes a serious problem.

On the other hand, the trimmer realizes that uncontrolled immigration would transform America beyond recognition and in directions that will likely horrify most open borders advocates. Short of establishing an American police state, what practical measures can be taken to regulate the flow of immigrants to our country?

I have spent years thinking about this problem without arriving at any sound-bite solution. I console myself with the thought that when someone does propose a slogan as a solution to a complex problem, he has almost surely oversimplified it. But there are proposals out there worthy of consideration. marapr-issuethumb

For instance, Ron Unz’s recommendation to raise the minimum wage as a means of controlling immigration should be entertained. The sale of visas is another approach with potential, one that has been explored in the British Parliament. A lowering of barriers to the import of developing world products into wealthy countries seems an obvious step: United States agricultural subsidies and tariffs, for instance, depress the earnings of many people in poorer countries and increase the incentive for them to try to come here, to the benefit of a small number of planters in America.

However we choose to cope with the immigration issue, if our nation is to survive as an effective unit of social organization, it must have the ability to control its borders. We should do so wisely, with charity towards those worse off than us and in a way that constrains the liberty of those already inside our borders as little as possible. My own life has been enhanced beyond measure by the influence of immigrants: my wife is an immigrant from the Philippines; I came to understand music due to my mentor from Ghana; and I spent many years playing in reggae bands with immigrants from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Haiti, and Antigua. I want the continued influx of their ilk to keep enriching my country. But I also want the culture in which I was raised to survive that influx. So call me a “trimmer”: I embrace the term proudly.

Gene Callahan teaches economics at SUNY Purchase and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.



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