Bryan Caplan  

Fun Facts of Gilded Age Migration

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On average, 5 percent of the populations of Britain, Ireland, and Norway emigrated every decade between 1850 and 1910, which increased to 14 percent of the Irish population emigrating between 1890 and 1910.  By the turn of the century, Italy, Portugal, and Spain recorded similar emigration levels... The Swedish population fell by 44 percent in the twenty-year period from 1871-1890.

Massive immigration dramatically impacted the economies of countries in the New World, which had relatively small populations.  Between 1880 and 1910, Argentina received the equivalent of 20 percent of its population per decade; the United States between 5 and 10 percent per decade; and Canada between 5 and 15 percent per decade.  Immigration in this age of mass migration accounted for around 50 percent of Argentina's population increase, and about a 30 percent increase for the United States and Australia.
The question that still bedevils me is why (democracy + anti-foreign bias) didn't swiftly regulate immigration down to a trickle.  Could 19th-century voters really have believed in open borders?



COMMENTS (10 to date)
NZ writes:

I wonder if it had to do with who was voting? Depending on what point in the 19th century we're talking about, it would have only been white male landowners who voted. Unfair, certainly--but this was generally the most educated portion of the population, and one more likely to think like economists.

Octahedron writes:

I'm thinking something along the lines of there being land that was readily available in some countries and industrialization which would have attracted plenty of young workers to urban areas. A lot of natives probably viewed jobs that required a lot of physical labor as being something suitable for immigrants and had less of an issue with it compared to today especially now that we are more globalized and can readily see the effects of living a globalized society.

Andrew writes:

"The question that still bedevils me is why (democracy + anti-foreign bias) didn't swiftly regulate immigration down to a trickle."

I don't understand the question. It did regulate immigration down to a trickle! Maybe 40 years (between 1880 and 1920) doesn't meet your definition of "swiftly", but remember that the American political system is designed to frustrate efforts for concerted government action.

Jimbo writes:

Goldin, C, “The Political Economy of Immigration Restriction in the United States, 1890 to 1921.” In The Regulated Economy: A Historical Approach to Political Economy, ed. C. Goldin and G.D. Libecap, 223-258. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The Man Who Was . . . writes:

Empty space. Only inviting Europeans.

Nathan Smith writes:

The idea that it's somehow morally acceptable to use force to prevent peaceful workers from migrating is a very strange one. It had to be invented and rationalized before it could be implemented.

Evan writes:

Maybe people had more trust in the power of the market to separate them from people they regarded as undesirable (the lack of cheap cars could have contributed to this). The (unfounded) lack of such trust today is a major reason for opposition to immigration (among conservatives anyway, among the left it's mainly unions).

Another possibility might be that nationalism hadn't infested the people of the 19th century as heavily as it did in the 20th.

@The Man Who Was

Empty space.

There's still plenty of empty space, have you ever been to Montana? Of course, it might be possible that even though there's still plenty of empty space, the common public no longer believes that. Put "modern voters underestimate amount of available space" as another possible reason.

Only inviting Europeans.
Remember though that bigotry against different types of Europeans was as widespread back then as bigotry against latinos and blacks is today. They even "proved" the genetic inferiority of Jews and Celtic types with intelligence tests the same way some modern people do with blacks and latinos. Some people didn't even regard the Irish to be truly "white." Also don't forget that the border to Mexico was quite open in the 19th century, and no one seemed to care.
Daublin writes:

Enforcement.

Today, the main barrier to illegal immigration seems to be employment paperwork. Nothing stops an arbitrary person from walking across the border, but they'll have a lot of trouble getting a job.

In 1900, I would guess that employment paperwork was practically nonexistent. If someone walked across the border in 1900, they could go work any old place. As such, any immigration law would be practically impossible to enforce, so the citizenry would give up on it.

Just a guess. If you dig any further, I'll be very interested in what you come up with.

JKB writes:

Well, during this time, the federal, some state and city governments were effectively controlled by the big industrialist, who found the influx to keep wages down. As one group earned enough to leave the mills, they were replaced by another wretched mass. The real awareness of the European refuse was only in the cities, where elections were controlled by the machines. As these groups moved into other areas of the country, the were already mostly Americanized.

Add to that no or limited unionization to work towards the removal or limitation of wage limiting competitors, i.e., immigrants, children.

Why would you vote to limit immigration when you rarely experienced a foreign person? Why when their arrival was not understood to be keeping wages down, only that they were taking the job you've moved up from? When their presence didn't increase your taxes for social programs?

Fergus O'Rourke writes:

Researching some recent blogposts of my own on emigration, I was very struck by how starkly Irish population history differed from the European norm. Over the last 160 years, while Europe generally has trebled its population, Ireland is still 30% lower than in 1841. This can be traced to mass emigration following crop failures.

The excerpt quoted above suggests that Sweden had an even more precipitous decline in population, while I knew that its current population was now 100% higher than in 1850, which would imply a notable recovery. However, the figures here for Swedish population seem to indicate a steady growth, and specifically an increase of c.14% between 1871 and 1890, rather than the extremely dramatic 44% fall quoted.

[bit.ly urls changed to full urls. Please do not use shortened urls on EconLog. Our readers like to know where they are going before they click a link.--Econlib Ed.]

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