David R. Henderson  

Victor Davis Hanson on "Bankrupt California"

PRINT
National Egoism and Vronsky Sy... Open Borders Persuasion Bleg...

"Bostonian," one of the commenters on my previous post on immigration quoted from an article by my Hoover colleague, Victor Davis Hanson. So I read the whole thing. There's a lot of meaty content, good and weak, in his article, "Bankrupt California," and so in a later post, I'll comment on other parts.

But for now, let me get to Hanson's point about immigration because that's why Bostonian quoted it. Here's what Hanson wrote:

California has built the nation's largest prison system, but there is no room left in either state or county facilities for an increasing number of dangerous felons. The same day last week that I emptied my wallet for gas, my 15-hp ag irrigation pump simply quit during the night. Nocturnal copper-wire thieves had come into the vineyard and yanked out the electrical conduit. That's the third theft of pump wire I've had this year -- and it costs $1,500 each time to repair the damage. I'm told that Mexican national gangs go down to Los Angeles with their stolen copper to sell it to mobile recyclers. No one calls the sheriff any more. Instead, we swap stories about protective wire cages, spikes, cameras, lights, and booby traps.

And later:
It's a veritable war these days in rural central California -- as copper-wire thieves, gangs, drug lords, and fencers run amuck in a bankrupt state that can no longer afford to keep its felons incarcerated. President Obama soars with talk of amnesty and the DREAM Act. But if we are going to waive federal statutes for each illegal alien who we feel may some day become a neurosurgeon or an experimental chemist, can't we at least enforce the law against those not in school and up to no good in the here and now, like the two sitting in my driveway phoning directions for local thieves to yank out copper wire?

Notice, though, that Hansen is writing in the context of laws that he presumably favors more than I do. I've been advocating open borders. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Hanson has been advocating restricting immigration, I think. Which set of views--mine or his--do the current laws come closer to? The President Obama he criticizes is the same one who has been strongly anti-illegal-immigrant. Obama has deported more illegal immigrants per month than Bush II and way more than Clinton. And look at the results. Hanson isn't happy with them. Nor should he be.

But my advocating more open immigration in no way means that I'm against enforcing laws against theft. And notice something else. Hanson puts "drug lords" in the same category as thieves. They're pretty different: one is producing and selling something that others value and the other is stealing from people. So if Hanson wants to get serious about getting criminals in prison, he needs to get serious about what should be defined as crimes. The fewer drug dealers there are in prison, the more room there is for thieves and violent criminals. Hanson could counter, correctly, that many "drug lords" are violent criminals too. But that's because of the drug laws. "Alcohol lords" in the 1920s were often violent; that's because of Prohibition. When Prohibition ended, violence in the liquor industry also ended. So if Hanson wants to get serious about reducing theft, he needs to consider what his and my Hoover colleague, Joe McNamara, and previous Hoover colleague, Milton Friedman, have been advocating: end the drug war.

If Hanson has been advocating ending the drug war, I apologize in advance to him. But I have never seen him advocate that. His style is more to play "ain't it awful:" to make a wish list of everything he wants to reduce or get rid of and not systematically consider tough tradeoffs between things on the list.



COMMENTS (33 to date)
RPLong writes:

..And are we meant to believe that it is only illegal immigrants who become copper thieves? Is that point established elsewhere in the article?

David R. Henderson writes:

@RPLong,
Good question, RP, and one I forgot to raise. He does not establish that point anywhere in the piece.

blighter writes:

Excellent post, Mr. Henderson.

You are, of course, absolutely correct. The conditions underlying Mr. Hanson's complaints that central California is now run much more like lawless rural Mexico than the productive, civilized California of decades past would almost certainly cease to exist if we simply erased the arbitrary, morally-repugnant 'border' between lawless, rural Mexico & California.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with California that would not be dramatically improved by the immediate addition of the 100 million-odd Mexicans who wish to immigrate there -- to say nothing of the 2 or 3 billion still poorer folk from elsewhere in the world who, were we a serious & moral people, America would be devoting the better part of our productive capacity towards bringing here.

David R. Henderson writes:

@blighter,
I get the irony. But think about this:
1. First, there are only 115 million people in Mexico. It's hard to believe that only 15 million would want to stay.
2. Let's say a billion or so people, largely poor, immigrated here. Don't you think that Hanson and one or two neighbors could hire one of them pretty cheaply to guard their property? I bet it would be done better than the state and local governments are doing it.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

California had plenty of home-grown citizen gangs before immigrant gangs - you may remember the Crips and Bloods. You may even remember a mainly citizen-lead violent riot in South Central LA in the 1990's.

California's "three strikes" law now has 9000 criminals serving life terms in prison. So many that this November, Proposition 36 will be on the ballot to revise the three strikes law to impose life sentence only when new felony conviction is serious or violent. Prop. 36 is supported by the DA for LA, SF, SD, as well as various police chiefs.

The war on drugs is very odd in California. On the same day, the LA City Council votes to continue to allow medical marijuana dispensaries, a huge "grow house" is busted down the road in the San Gabriel valley worth $6 million.

In the middle of the current budget crisis, California is trying to build a high-speed rail system that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars and will pretty much not serve any major population centers until 2033.

Immigrants are not the problem in California. The problem is public sector unions, out of control spending, and the drug war.

Hanson isn't saying the immigration is 'the problem' (read his article).

However, he's in agreement with Milton Friedman with this;

It is puzzling in the small towns of the San Joaquin Valley to see both federal and state medical centers and nearby offices that specialize in cash transfers to Mexico. But no one seems to see any disconnect between the public need for free health care and the private desire to send money to Mexico.

Friedman famously said that open immigration and the welfare state can't co-exist.

Eric falkenstein writes:

He wrote Mexifornia, which spells out his beliefs on immigration pretty well. I think like most non-libertarians he considers drug legalization irrelevant, not so much because it is a bad idea, but like privatizing the Post Office, it isn't going to happen so why bother with that alternative solution. As a libertarian myself, I'm sympathetic to that viewpoint, more interested on probable changes than the highly improbable ones.

It doesn't help libertarian goals that their most prominent issues are pie-in-the-sky (drug legalization, open boarders, gold standard).

KLO writes:

David,

I once participated in a mock trial involving a dispute between the widow of an insured and a life insurance company. The insured had died under mysterious circumstances suggestive of suicide. The life insurance policy did not pay out in the event of suicide. The life insurance company denied the claim. I was representing the insurance company in front of a mock jury. After the whole thing was done, one of the partners at the law firm where I worked took me to task for not focussing the jury's attention on the effects ignoring contract terms would have on the life insurance business. He thought that a jury of regular people would really connect with that argument. I was baffled.

Likewise, I am baffled when you suggest that the ability to hire guards inexpensively makes up for a possible marked increase in crime that might accompany an open borders immigration policy. The police have never been a guarantor against theft and yet most people have felt secure enough that they have not resorted to hiring private guards. Having spent time at a vineyard in central Mexico, I can say that the same sense of security that many of us feel here is all but absent there. The main house was surrounded by a tall metal fence and was defended by a couple of private sentries. Nice place.

sieben writes:

"It doesn't help libertarian goals that their most prominent issues are pie-in-the-sky (drug legalization, open boarders, gold standard)."

All politics is pie-in-the-sky. No one has any reasonable control over government agents. The system is going to do what it's going to do whether you propose ending the drug war or just reducing possession penalties by 5%.

The point in holding extreme moral positions is... moral.

MikeP writes:

Friedman famously said that open immigration and the welfare state can't co-exist.

...unless the immigration is illegal -- which Friedman most definitely preferred to closed immigration and the welfare state.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Eric Falkenstein,
It doesn't help libertarian goals that their most prominent issues are pie-in-the-sky (drug legalization, open boarders [sic], gold standard).
Two of those three are ones I favor. Most libertarians I know don't favor the gold standard as much as favor allowing the gold standard. There's a big difference.
Also, virtually every libertarian I know wants to get rid of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and thousands of other programs. Are you really saying, Eric, that if we spent a lot of time advocating that, we would not be thought of as advocating "pie-in-the-sky?" I actually think, based on historical experience with Prohibition, that getting rid of the drug war is more likely than ending Medicare.

Nathan Smith writes:

Hanson's argument seems to consist entirely of anecdotal evidence. Well, here's my anecdotal evidence. I moved out to the Central Valley of California a year ago. I lived for a little while in southeast Fresno, then in Sanger, a small town a little east, very near orange orchards, and now I'm in central Fresno. I haven't had any encounters with crime. I once hired a guy who was a member of the Bulldog gang (inactive) to fix my car (didn't know he was a gangster till he got to talking-- very talkative guy). He had a lot of resentment towards the cops, and if I recall correctly his dad (we were at his parents' house) was behind on the rent, but he was nice enough to me. I often leave my door unlocked at night. That's dumb and it's just my forgetfulness, but it's indicative that I don't feel a lot of fear. Basically, life is normal. If you look at crime statistics-- see here: http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/cacrime.htm-- property crimes are down, murders are down, forcible rape is down, burglaries are down by MORE THAN HALF since 1986, when Reagan's amnesty passed. But "no one calls the sheriff anymore," says Hanson. Well, surely they'd call the sheriff about MURDER, and that's fallen sharply. Really, shouldn't Hanson give us some evidence? Not just personal anecdotes but solid, statistical evidence? By his account, central California sounds like it's descending into anarchy. Who am I to believe, him or my own lying eyes? As someone who lives here, his account just doesn't ring true.

Now, it's true that central California is sort of rural and backward compared to the East Coast metropolises where I lived for the previous ten years. One misses the charm of Georgetown, the buzz of sophisticated conversation in a corner Starbucks, the intelligentsia. But making the immigrants go away won't make the intelligentsia come. On the contrary. The agricultural industry here is heavily dependent on immigrant labor. A lot of the economy around here, as far as I can tell, would just unravel without it.

I listened to a little of Hanson's book, Mexifornia. He commits every fallacy in the book, again and again. I'll concede that median and average incomes are probably a bit lower in the Central Valley than they would be without the immigration. That's not inconsistent with immigration being beneficial to most immigrants and most natives, or even to it being Pareto-superior to closed borders. "Pareto-superior," of course, is a concept far too sophisticated for the likes of Hanson to understand. Which is why he shouldn't be taken seriously on this issue.

Hana writes:

California is a de facto open border state. Illegal aliens operate under the umbrella of lax federal and state law enforcement as well as sanctuary cities.

The take away I get from reading VDH is that one of his issues with illegal aliens is respect for the rule of law. Accepting the concept of open borders, there is still the implicit right of the state to maintain its own laws and regulations. It is also an implicit obligation of the immigrant to respect those laws. The immigrant does not have the right to ignore these laws.
What VDH describes and experiences in the Central Valley is anarchy, where there is no obligation on the part of illegals to adhere to the rules.

The illegals are operating rationally with regard to using social benefits and exploiting the California system. From their perspective, and quite rationally, they are economically better off by collecting welfare in the US then by working in their home countries. Why does California have 30% of the welfare recipients in the US?

While it is all well and good to advocate in the abstract for open borders, as PRS mentions above, how does it work in reality?

Like DRH I am an immigrant to this country. The Bay Area is full of immigrants that make the country richer and more prosperous. Looking only at the Silicon Valley one can easily make a compelling case for open borders. Drive 70 miles east. Stop in and look at the towns of Stockton, Los Banos, Merced, Madera, and dozens of others on the 99 corridor. (You can do it on the way to the Sierra). You will see abandoned appliances, mattresses, garbage, and other debris along the roadways. Feel the difference, then ask, how two pictures of immigrants in one state can be so different.

That repeated $1500 VDH spends replacing his electrical wiring is a tax he pays for illegals not integrating into the society and following the US rule of law. As far as the stolen wire, I respect his judgment in determining the likely identity of the thieves.

David, I am also a proponent of open borders. However the real results of that policy in the Central Valley belie the value of that position. In the absence of overall social welfare changes, it is not a practical solution. Push VDH on drugs first.

MikeDC writes:

I guess this would be the area where many libertarians would accuse many non-libertarians of "Vronsky Syndrome" for failing to argue for (or even arguing against) open borders when economic theory and morality both suggest immigration is good.

I reach a different conclusion. I think everything good comes down to economic growth in the long-run, and economic growth comes down to an astonishingly simple set of issues and questions:
1. Food and shelter. Are the basic human necessities in your grasp?
2. Knowledge. Is a basic education in your grasp?
3. Freedom. Can you do as you please with yourself, your time, and your property without the approval of others?
4. Stability. Is there a relatively predictable agreement, support and mutual enforcement of your freedom?

To the extent you answer these questions yes, the normal economic theory holds and adding more people should lead to economic growth.

To the extent you can't answer these questions yes (and California seems iffy on both 3 and 4), adding more people won't necessarily lead to a positive outcome. I don't see any inconsistency there.

MikeP writes:

...adding more people won't necessarily lead to a positive outcome.

Talk to the people being added, Mr. "maximize the per-capita GDP of the existing population."

David R. Henderson writes:

@Nathan Smith,
Wonderfully put, Nathan.
Until the last two sentences. I know Victor a little. As I mentioned, we are both Hoover fellows and so I occasionally talk to him in the special coffee room at Hoover. Don't sell him short. I bet he can understand "Pareto superior." And even people who can't understand have views on the issue that we should take seriously. I did take him seriously, which is why I bothered responding. If we don't take people's concerns seriously, we get nowhere.

Silas Barta writes:

*puts Coasean hat on*

Wait a second -- the thief will probably only get maybe $50, tops, for the copper when he sells it to a fence, but it costs $1500 to replace. Why doesn't Hanson just buy out the thief's (pseudo) right to take the copper and make the both off! Transaction costs certainly aren't high enough to prevent this Pareto improvement!

Joe Cushing writes:

Great post. Usually I have something to add but you said everything I would have said. End the drug war and let people live where they may.

Oh, RPLong makes a good point. It's worth pointing out that immigrants, even illegal ones are less likely to commit crimes than people born here.

Ted Levy writes:

David,

1. I see RP Long asked the obvious first question that occurred to me: do only illegal immigrants steal copper wire?

STEAL COPPER WIRE?! Shades of Atlas Shrugged, though I don't recall it was stolen in that book by thieving Mexican nationals.

What laws have led to stealing copper wire? Is it merely overall inflation, such that previously cheap commodity copper has increased in nominal value to the point it becomes worthwhile to steal? Or is there something special about copper and some obscure regulation?

2. Funny that Eric F. refers to drug legalization as pie-in-the-sky less than a month before (polls suggest) one or more state may legalize recreational marijuana...

MikeP writes:

Why doesn't Hanson just buy out the thief's (pseudo) right to take the copper and make the both off!

He could also spend the 50 bucks on a simple alarm system. If only there were a convenient conductor that must be broken in order to steal the copper wire...

...the thief will probably only get maybe $50, tops, for the copper when he sells it to a fence, but it costs $1500 to replace. Why doesn't Hanson just buy out the thief's (pseudo) right to take the copper....

'Nice little irrigation pump you've got there. Be a shame if something happened to it.'

I hasten to add that Coase would undoubtedly recognize that it wouldn't be just ONE thief who'd need to be bought off.

Silas Barta writes:

I hasten to add that Coase would undoubtedly recognize that it wouldn't be just ONE thief who'd need to be bought off.

Indeed. Unfortunately, his modern defenders wouldn't.

Eric Falkenstein writes:
if we spent a lot of time advocating that, we would not be thought of as advocating "pie-in-the-sky?"

Well, degree matters. Legalizing marijuana, say, as opposed to all drugs, is a distinction with a difference, though rarely do I hear such a targeted distinction from committed libertarians. Steroids, cannabis, mushrooms, LSD, etc. are different because they aren't nearly as addictive as meth, opiates, and cocaine. As Mark Kleiman has noted legalizing any drug will increase its use dramatically, and we don't have a rational treatment plan for the statistically certain deluge of new addicts. I'm an old school Spenserian on how to punish vices that affect only the perpetrator, but that's not tolerable, so I imagine cheap heroin would merely enable a legion of future welfare zombies, and then misdirected efforts on root causes and free needle exchanges.

You can't apply libertarian principles absolutely but piecemeal because we have a large welfare state, tort system and rights for people with disabilities (such as being an addict--no discrimination unless proven job related!). Any helpful change needs to consider this context, in the same way you don't want to remove all bank regulation while deposit insurance and too-big-too fail exist (though, I think one could reduce it by 90% rather productively).

Ted Levy writes:

Eric, first, as a physician, I'd say the addictive powers of "meth, opiates, and cocaine" are overblown.

More importantly, though, even if they weren't, that would be a good argument for not taking them, not a good argument for prohibiting them.

The economics of prohibition do not change based on the addictive qualities of the drug, and it is the economics of prohibition on which much of the legalization argument rests.

Dan j writes:

I must ask... Indeed, prohibition made the black market on alcohol lucrative. But, did the lucrative aspects of the black market on alcohol create violent Men? Would these same violent men not be enabled to act out in violence for another reason? Did the lucrative affair attract men capable of violence or willing to commit violence? After prohibition ended, did the men who engaged in violent crimes, not apprehended by the the state, commit themselves to becoming upstanding pillars of the community? Would legalizing of drugs just shift men, already profiting from the black market on drugs, to focus in on some other lucrative business in the black market? money buys power... Power attracts... Especially, men who do not shy away from violence. Thoughts?

Dan j writes:

@sieben... Play along, please.... I believe, that in life, there are countless varying scenarios playing out, in which no two are alike. Amongst the thousands of years of Man interactions and experiences, they are all different, even if by minuscule details and with varying outcomes. Lessons learned from the past suggest to remain principled in standing your moral high ground. But, my friend, the battles are being lost. Wars are won with strategy. And, there is a war of ideology. To require all of your principles to be on display for your approval (not merely for discussion) but as a stance of all or nothing has not been moving the ball down the field, one iota. Is it not ok to win small battles, chipping away at the state? The state has been chipping away with success. It will not respect your morality. I suggest a strategy built on variations of previous one's. remain principled, but chipping away by prioritizing. Rejoice in small victories. But, the battle rages on.

Hugh writes:

I always enjoy VDH's essays on California, and have now had time to read this latest piece too.

Nathan Smith criticises Hanson for his anecdotal approach, but I find it refreshing to see an essay start from personal observations of everyday occurrences: only in this way can we capture the chaotic nature of life as it is actually lived.

This essay was in the form of a fairly short blog entry with the title "Bankrupt California" and did not cover the wisdom (or otherwise) of all the laws that are being broken (drug laws seem to vex many commenters). However, in other essays Hanson has raised a different but connected issue: the huge number of laws / rules / regulations that apply to every aspect of Californian life, and the way in which these are applied to some sectors of the population, but not others. An example would be the very high environmental standards applicable to restaurants and the total absence of controls over wayside meals served from trucks.

I believe that if VDH and DRH were to discuss these issues they would find considerable common ground.

blighter writes:

 
@Mr. Henderson -

"2. Let's say a billion or so people, largely poor, immigrated here. Don't you think that Hanson and one or two neighbors could hire one of them pretty cheaply to guard their property? I bet it would be done better than the state and local governments are doing it."

So you are arguing that w/ an open borders policy we could successfully change the U.S. into a place that functions much like the wildly dysfunctional countries where most of humanity lives today & has ever lived? Places where there are few or no functioning civic institutions and so the vast majority of people live lives of, to your average American, desperate poverty & unimaginable criminality, while a tiny elite manage to live comfortable lives through the expedient of constantly surrounding themselves with private security & fences to keep the rampant chaos that surrounds them at bay?

And you feel this would be an improvement for the U.S. & the world? Destroying one of the few, functional countries by swamping it w/ people from the ubiquitous dysfunctional ones until there is no difference between the two?

It seems to me that the reason some countries are poor & dysfunctional while some are rich & functional must be, assuming arguendo that all people share the same average capabilities, either 1) Institutions or 2) Culture. (And, obv. there is interplay between the two.)

But both Institutions & Culture are ultimately made up of people who are versed in them, if you swamp those people with other people who are unfamiliar w/ the institutions & culture you will destroy them w/out improving, or at least w/o long improving, the lives of the people you have imported.

As an aside, the open borders faith that libertarians so often exhibit always serves as a helpful reminder that Libertarians share, with their antithesis Communists, a willful ignorance of human nature when it collides with the purity of their beautiful theory. Both are only too happy to destroy actual, functional communities to prove that their imaginary utopia would be far better.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Hugh,
I believe that if VDH and DRH were to discuss these issues they would find considerable common ground.
Correct, Hugh. And I lay out much of the common ground in my latest post.

MikeDC writes:

@MikeP
And their descendants. And people who agree to be

Anyway, I can certainly tell the people coming into an unfree and unstable situation that they might not be conducive to growth as a whole or their personal prosperity.

Most obviously though, I don't have to tell them, because, as noted, California seems to have de facto open borders anyway and as growth has slowed, freedom has waned, stability has declined, notably fewer immigrants have come.

Floccina writes:

Open borders and drug legalization could be seen as conservative, because the borders were open far more in the 1920s than now and drugs where far more legal before the 1930s. That should make them less frightening that they first seem. They have been tried before and things were not so bad.

Dan j writes:

I must ask... Indeed, prohibition made the black market on alcohol lucrative. But, did the lucrative aspects of the black market on alcohol create violent Men? Would these same violent men not be enabled to act out in violence for another reason? Did the lucrative affair attract men capable of violence or willing to commit violence? After prohibition ended, did the men who engaged in violent crimes, not apprehended by the the state, commit themselves to becoming upstanding pillars of the community? Would legalizing of drugs just shift men, already profiting from the black market on drugs, to focus in on some other lucrative business in the black market? money buys power... Power attracts... Especially, men who do not shy away from violence. Thoughts?

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top