Bryan Caplan  

Did IQ Research Cause U.S. Immigration Restriction?

Who Are the Good Guys?... Most of the Devils Are Here...
People who believe in the importance of IQ often conclude that they've found a scientific rationale for immigration restrictions.  They're wrong.  But has their mistaken inference led to more restrictive immigration policies? 

The Immigration Act of 1924 seems like the clearest example.  During World War I, IQ researchers found that recent immigrants had below-average IQs.  A few years later, lo and behold, the U.S. government imposed new immigration quotas based on the 1890 census, leading to a predictable crash in Southern and Eastern European immigration.  Hardly a smoking gun, but certainly suspicious.

After reading Snyderman and Herrnstein's article, "Intelligence Tests and the Immigration Act of 1924" (American Psychologist, 1983), I'm convinced that this suspicion is incorrect.  Contrary to several modern accounts, early IQ researchers never found that 75%+ of Jews, Hungarians, Italians, and Russians were "feeble-minded."  Goddard, the author of the relevant study, was deliberately studying a sub-normal group.  He explicitly stated that his study "makes no attempt to determine the percentage of feeble-minded among immigrants in general or even of the special groups named--the Jews, Hungarians, Italians, and Russians."  The standard finding, rather, was that immigrants' test scores were modestly lower than natives'.  And according to Snyderman and Herrnstein, there was no consensus that this modest IQ deficit was hereditary or justified immigration restrictions.

More to the point, though, S&H show that politicians were barely aware of IQ research:
There is no mention of intelligence testing in the Act; test results on immigrants appear only briefly in the committee hearings and are then largely ignored or criticized, and they are brought up only once in over 600 pages of congressional floor debate, where they are subjected to further criticism without rejoinder. None of the major contemporary figures in testing-- H. H. Goddard, Lewis Terman, Robert Yerkes, E. L. Thorndike, and so on--were called to testify, nor were any of their writings inserted into the legislative record. The overlapping distributions of test scores for various national and racial populations would probably have created more problems for the Act's proponents than for its opponents, which may help explain why the intelligence testing movement of the early 20th century left so few traces in the record. The examples of racism occasionally evident in both early psychometric writings and the Immigration Act do not appear to be causally related to each other. Rather, each reflects in its own way a crest in the long history of American Anglo-Saxonism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Semitism...
My main reservation about Snyderman and Herrnstein's account: In The Bell Curve, Herrnstein and Murray sound like they want to use IQ research to restrict immigration:
[W]e believe that the main purpose of immigration law should be to serve America's interests. It should be among the goals of immigration policy to shift the flow of immigrants away from those admitted under nepotistic rules (which broadly encourage the reunification of relatives) and toward those admitted under competency rules, already established in immigration law - not to a total exclusion of nepotistic and humanitarian criteria but a shift.  Perhaps our central thought is that present policy assumes an indifference to the individual characteristics of immigrants that no society can indefinitely maintain without danger.
My suspicion is that, despite internal debate, early IQ researchers were indeed anti-immigration.  Nevertheless, there were merely a handful of intellectuals.  The overwhelming reason why politicians restricted immigration was not psychometrics, but public opinion.

COMMENTS (7 to date)
Steve Sailer writes:

There were already quotas limiting the number of Jews at Ivy League schools by the early 1920s, a few years before the 1924 Immigration Act passed, so it seems unlikely that there were strong widespread elite misperceptions that Jews were low IQ in the early 1920s.

In other words, today's instances of researchers jumping to conclusions about human biodiversity are more likely to have negative effects than the standard bad example.

Evan writes:

I think IQ studies in general are very poor at persuading people to accept immigration restriction, and that's more true today than ever since our society has (for good reason) adopted such strong anti-racism taboos. That's because today there are really only two types of people who are willing to give IQ studies a fair hearing:

1) People who have extremely strong moral beliefs about treating all people fairly no matter what, and therefore find IQ to be completely orthogonal to the issue of immigration (Bryan is one of these).
2) People who already want to restrict immigration for some other reason.

I thought that the case might be different back in 1924, since we didn't have anti-racism taboos. But that doesn't seem to be the case, judging from Snyderman and Herrnstein's article it looks like the majority of people opposed immigration for other reasons. All I have to say is, if IQ scores couldn't persuade people in 1924, there's no way in Hades that they could now.

Clay writes:

Many relatively low birth rate countries and cultures such as Germany, Italy, and Israel (which has a low birth rate relative to neighboring Arab nations) are terrified that their traditional people and genetics are being permanently extinguished from the planet by completely foreign peoples and cultures with much high birth rates.

This isn't a fringe intellectual position, this is the mass public opinion issue. People generally don't feel comfortable being extremely blunt and confrontational about this and claiming their genetics and blood line to be superior as if they were the master race. But at some level, these populations feel like their people and culture have something special at the genetic bloodline level and are terrified of that being permanently extinguished. Immigration absolutely highlights this threat and opposing immigration is a lot more polite and socially acceptable than claiming genetic superiority and calling for open breeding wars.

Jay writes:

There seems to be a step missing from (what I take to be) Bryan's argument here.

1. The facts do not support the claim that the Immigration Act of 1924 was motivated by IQ research.


n. Therefore, it is wrong to advocate immigration restrictions based on IQ research.


Mike Rulle writes:

I advocate support for immigration generally, and explicitly would be against any immigration policy with an IQ or similar constraint. It is self evident that IQ captures a subset, and an overrated subset at that, of the character or potential value of a person or that person's progeny. I like the Becker/Fagan line from Reelin' in the Years--"You have been telling me you were a genius since you were 17, and all this times I've known you I don't know what you mean".

Andrew writes:

"My suspicion is that, despite internal debate, early IQ researchers were indeed anti-immigration. Nevertheless, there were merely a handful of intellectuals. The overwhelming reason why politicians restricted immigration was not psychometrics, but public opinion."

While I agree that IQ testing had little involvement in the policy decision to limit immigration, I challenge your assumption that only a handful of intellectuals wanted restriction. While related to many of the same sentiments as IQ testing, the Eugenics movement in the US was quite popular among intellectuals, well before the Immigration Act of 1924 and IQ testing. The Immigration Restriction League--formed moreorless by Harvard Professors in the late 19th century--petitioned congress in 1918, to restrict immigration. Most of their arguments were about 1. Superiority of certain European groups and 2. the desire for homogeneous values among citizens. Clearly, more than a handful of intellectuals engaging in the trade.

I know early 20th century media would seem to suggest that public opinion strongly opposed immigration, but I cannot help but wonder the impact of 30 million, mostly naturalized, immigrants over a 50 year period on public opinion? Since that would have been a sizable amount of the US population, I question how much "public opinion" dictated immigration restrictions. There has to be more to it than that. Even if I concede the point about negative public opinion toward immigrants, it still fails to explain why it happened in 1924 (if negative views were held toward immigrants at pretty much a constant rate, why restrict then and not earlier?).

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