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Just Like Home

Immigrants make the countries they move to more like the ones they left.

(By SnapASkyline/Shutterstock)

The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move To a Lot Like the Ones They Left, by Garrett Jones (2022, Stanford University Press) 228 pages.

Is Garrett Jones kidding? He has written a book so pro-immigration in its argument, yet so anti-immigration in its substance, that I cannot discount the possibility that he is engaged in a sophisticated satire.


The substance that Jones presents is summed up in his subtitle: “How Migrants Make the Economies They Move To a Lot Like the Ones They Left.” A country’s level of prosperity is in large part determined by its culture, specifically on key questions such as “frugality, trust in strangers, the importance of living near family, and opinions about government regulation.” These traits are even more important than whether a country has natural resources or whether it is a liberal democracy. They determine whether a country will be able to make good use of any natural resources it has or make the institutions of liberal democracy function successfully.

According to Jones’s research, these basic values are resilient in immigrant populations even after generations. One study looking at social trust found that “46 percent of the home country attitude toward trust survived” in second-generation immigrants to the United States. The same 46 percent persistence was found in fourth-generation immigrants. No gradual assimilation to American trust levels occurred. Other studies found similar persistence in other cultural traits, such as attitude to the role of government.

The thesis that Jones draws from this data is that poor countries should import Chinese immigrants. “Let in a lot of people from China every year—maybe 2 percent of each nation’s population—for about a dozen years.” Now is the time to do it, while China is still poor enough that millions of Chinese would emigrate if given the opportunity. “Welcoming immigrants who have substantially more education, more job skills, more pro-market attitudes than the average citizen” has “adjustment costs, difficulties, even a risk of greater ethnic violence—but prosperity, human flourishing, is worth sacrificing for.”

Jones is a smart man, so he knows that the risk of ethnic violence against market-dominant minorities is not theoretical. Many southeast Asian countries followed the path of importing Chinese immigrants. Their experience confirms Jones’s argument that immigrants maintain their own cultures; the Chinese minorities in these places tend to be wealthier and more commercially successful than indigenous populations. However, the overseas Chinese tend for this very reason to be unpopular, sometimes hated. Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Burma, Vietnam—all saw anti-Chinese riots in the last century.

Amazingly, Jones bites this bullet:


I believe the prospect of better economies—which means better health care, greater human flourishing, and less drudgery—is worth the very real risk of Indonesia-style pogroms and deadly ethnic riots. The many lives, including young lives, that would be dramatically extended over the next half century if Indonesia’s 300 million citizens became twice as rich are, in my personal estimation, worth the genuine risk of an ethnic riot every decade that kills two thousand people.

You see why I wonder if he is being satirical.

Of course, most of Jones’s readers will be in the United States, which does not need to import Chinese immigrants to teach us how to do capitalism. Oddly enough, though, the United States today finds itself in a similar position to those Southeast Asian countries. The most prestigious university in America was recently hauled before the Supreme Court to justify its practice of capping its number of Asian students. Without that cap, it is estimated that Harvard would be up to half Asian, even though the U.S. is only 7 percent Asian. Clearly, the challenge of what to do when an immigrant minority outcompetes natives is not just a question for Indonesia.

In his calculation of the pluses and minuses of his immigration plan, Jones’s negatives are all forms of backlash. Natives resent the newcomers’ success, leading to social friction, political instability, and sometimes violence. These costs are outweighed by the economic benefits the immigrants confer—the jobs they create, the tax revenue they provide, the low prices they offer—and in theory the costs could vanish altogether if the natives would stop being so xenophobic.

The experience of the United States suggests that, actually, importing high-achieving immigrants has downsides that have nothing to do with backlash.

Living in a high-trust society is much nicer than living in a low-trust society. Sweden is nicer than Somalia. But what is best of all is to be a low-trust person in a high-trust society. It is like being the lone defector in a prisoner’s dilemma.

One of the advantages of a high-trust society is that strangers cooperate easily. You assume the person you are doing business with will keep his promises, and if he doesn’t, the police and the courts can be counted on to offer adjudication and redress. In low-trust societies, people compensate for the greater possibility that strangers will cheat them with impunity by doing business within their own family or clan. (Jones notes this, too: “You might think that family-run companies are charming, but they’re often a sign that the firm can’t convince total strangers to invest in it. Why won’t strangers invest? Because the strangers can’t be sure they’ll get a fair shake of the firm’s profits.”)

Many of the countries from which America draws Asian immigrants fit this description of low-trust familism to one degree or another. As Jones might have predicted, this clannishness persists even into later American-born generations. In 2000, Indian Americans were less than 1 percent of the population but owned more than 50 percent of the motels in the country, and the vast majority of those motel owners had the surname Patel and traced their origins to the same region of Gujarat. As social scientists found when they researched this phenomenon, the “Patel motel cartel” arose because the immigrants used their immediate families as staff, keeping labor costs down, and used their extended immigrant community as a professional network to expand their market share.

Ironically, one of the reasons the Patels emigrated in the first place was that post-independence Gujarat was not friendly to capitalist entrepreneurs. It turned out that the traits they adopted in order to cope with rampant corruption and overweening government back home were equally advantageous, maybe more so, in free-market America.

Is it possible that the traits that make immigrant minorities successful in America are the same traits that, in broad majorities, hold their home countries back? That would explain the paradox of why some immigrant minorities have higher incomes than native white Americans even though their home countries struggle to escape poverty.

But the most important question is whether people from a low-trust society can, in sufficient numbers, transform a high-trust society into a low-trust one. Because if being a low-trust person in a high-trust society is the best of both worlds, being a high-trust person in a low-trust society is the worst. All the characteristics that made your country attractive to immigrants in the first place become maladaptive overnight.

Much of the literature on immigrant assimilation looks at easily observable questions about subsequent generations, such as whether they are learning English, graduating high school, and moving up the income ladder. Jones’s book proves that these external accomplishments do not necessarily indicate assimilation at the deeper level of cultural values. This is of the greatest possible importance, because every day social science discovers further evidence that these cultural values, more than anything else, determine what a country’s politics and its economy will look like in the future.