Bryan Caplan  


Betting: Automatic Weapons vs.... Independence and Growth...
An especially clever argument by Nathan Smith:
[G]lobalization has half-Americanized half the world already. 19th-century immigrants may have been racially more similar to America's white native majority, but they were less familiar with democracy, with the English language, with America via movies and music and TV, with American-style market capitalism, with Coke and McDonalds and Microsoft and Google and many other American firms, with blue jeans and free speech and religious tolerance, than a 19th-century immigrant from the Hapbsurg empire or tsarist Russia. There are lots and lots of foreigners who could show up on an American college campus or in an American corporate office building and fit in, just fine, almost immediately. There's no reason to think that 15% or so was ever an upper bound on the foreign-born share of the population that America could absorb, and that upper bound is probably much higher today, because of cultural assimilation that has occurs across international borders, with the influences running both from abroad to America and from America to abroad, though the latter direction of influence is surely more important.
In short, the marriage of modern technology and Western culture has covertly pre-assimilated hundreds of millions of "foreigners" around the globe.

COMMENTS (21 to date)
Krishnan writes:

Nathan Smith has also identified what I think the biggest factor in the animosity many have towards the US - the US has influenced millions without firing shots - and the reasons are an open society that welcomed immigrants, assimilated new ideas and incorporated them within the "culture" and remained generous to a fault - in times of humanitarian crises almost anywhere in the world, the first help almost always seems to come from some private organization in the US ... The US Higher Education system has also played a critical role - You can look up almost any nation on earth and find in their universities, governments people educated somewhere in the US ... (not that all of them left with an appreciation of a society that must respect the rights of the minorities and be tolerant to dissent)

jc writes:

"We will half-assimilate half of you. Resistance is futile." - the American Borg

C writes:

Only Caplan and others who have not experienced a foreign culture intimately can really believe Nathan Smith's argument is "clever." While no doubt the 19th century immigrants had little exposure to many American norms, economically and socially they were much more able to assimilate with a high proportion of the economy still dependent on manual labor and the increased religiosity of the masses. Much of the developing world would still find it easier to assimilate into 19th century America than the knowledge- and services-based economy of the present day.

Moreover arguing that because one finds McDonald's in El Salvador or India, the cultures are not radically different just shows a stunning lack of knowledge.

Vipul Naik writes:

@C: I think you're objecting to an overstatement of Nathan's point. He's saying that _many_ people from around the world can fit in pretty quickly with US culture, not that they form an absolute majority. I'm from India and currently a Ph.D. student in Chicago in the United States, and my "culture shock" when I first moved from Delhi (where I grew up) to Chennai (where I went to college) was _greater_ than my culture shock of moving to Chicago for Ph.D. studies. I had more language problems in Chennai than in Chicago, for instance.

The main barrier for most would-be immigrants and temporary workers/students is linguistic fluency, but a large proportion of the educated and skilled workforce around the world is quite fluent in English.

johnleemk writes:


Service economies still need some manual labourers. Somebody needs to clean the office and maintain the elevators. And even in the service economy there are plenty of relatively low-productivity jobs to be had: somebody needs to wait tables, babysit children, and so forth.

In Malaysia where I am from, not only construction jobs but service jobs too see substantial numbers of immigrant workers. It's impossible to go about a regular day in Kuala Lumpur without encountering a non-native running the register at 7-11, waiting your table, staffing your kids' daycare, or patrolling your neighbourhood (where they are protecting you from natives -- as in most countries, immigrants in Malaysia are disproportionately underrepresented in the criminal ranks).

And Malaysia is no cultural powerhouse, so it doesn't experience the benefits that a more culturally dominant country like the US or UK would. Fortunately enough English is a lingua franca, so to that extent, many immigrants are easily assimilable (their English fluency is probably no worse than most natives') -- and they prove surprisingly capable of adapting to local languages as well. Seemingly natural intuitions about immigration have an uncanny tendency to be overturned by the facts.

James writes:

Johnleemk, natural intuitions about immigration can also be overturned by the experience of living amongst immigrants or in ethnically diverse areas.

What is your evidence in favour of the hypothesis that restrictionists all live in lily-white communities and are guessing about the real effects of immigration, rather than that they are extrapolating from their concrete experiences?

As for pre-assimilation, Bryan Caplan should test his ideas by coming to live in the Pakistani half of Bradford in England. Familiarity with Western movies and how to enter a voting booth doesn't matter, but e.g. the principles that poorly-raised girls of a different ethnicity shouldn't be pimped, and that the law should not be defined by ancient religious writings, are rather important.

Furthermore, the racial problem isn't separable from political differences. People of different races don't tend to trust or like each other very much, and this exacerbates prior ideological division. It also makes the society less easy to coordinate, in the event that the constitution needs to be rebooted. Try to imagine the American revolution, conducted by a population in which no cohesive ethnic group is more than 20% of the total.

Since I do believe that the West shall need a libertarian reboot at some point this century, I am disappointed (but not surprised) to find government-funded libertarians campaigning for something that is inimical to this.

mdc writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Krishnan writes:

"C" seems to be displaying a stunning lack of knowledge - Vipul Naik reminds us that indeed a large fraction of the workforce around the world is fluent in english and very aware of the US of A ... (Yes, accents can be a barrier sometimes and people shut themselves off ... almost like what happens when a "Yankee" hears a "Southerner" - I imagine for many, many people it is far easier to understand an Indian speaking english than a Southern Gentleman/Woman who has lived in the Deep South for ever.

8 writes:

By this argument, the 9/11 terrorists were assimilated.

Krishnan writes:

"8" wrote "By this argument, the 9/11 terrorists were assimilated. - yes, they knew about the US - how to fool the security, how to get trained to fly planes and so on ... Timothy McVeigh was trained by the US Army ... he was also "assimilated"

There are people who do evil - with or without being "assimilated" - the point was the US has had an enormous positive influence around the world in many ways - No one will pretend that everyone can be convinced about the positives of an open society that respects and encourages the efforts of everyone - no matter what their pedigree

johnleemk writes:


I don't see where I said anything about the typical restrictionist living in a lily-white community. C presented absolutely zero empirical evidence for his position that immigrants can't assimilate well in an economy where they need to staff service or knowledge sector jobs. This doesn't pass a basic sniff test: consider that some of the heaviest lobbying in the US for raising of the H-1B work visa quotas is coming from tech companies who are entirely in the service/knowledge sector.

In any case, I am not suggesting that C's or your or anyone else's experiences are invalid or irrelevant. I am merely reminding you that there are those who have had very positive personal experiences with immigrants and immigration as well, and that you have no more right to dismiss those experiences than others have to dismiss yours.

(As for your ideas about a libertarian reboot of human/Western civilisation, I find it amusing that open borders advocates are the ones commonly stereotyped as the starry-eyed myopic dreamers, while restrictionists are classed as the ones rooted in reality, feet solidly planted on the ground.)

James writes:

Johnleemk, I took your claim:

Seemingly natural intuitions about immigration have an uncanny tendency to be overturned by the facts.

to be a general one, in which case I wanted to point out that many restrictionists use the sensible heuristic: the existing level of immigration has made my local area less pleasant, so even more immigration is unlikely to benefit me. I tend to reserve the word "intuition" for predictions about relatively novel experiences and circumstances, not simple extrapolation. I agree that this one "natural intuition" about immigrants being ill-equipped for service jobs may indeed be false.

(As for your ideas about a libertarian reboot of human/Western civilisation, I find it amusing that open borders advocates are the ones commonly stereotyped as the starry-eyed myopic dreamers, while restrictionists are classed as the ones rooted in reality, feet solidly planted on the ground.)

There is a general perception in libertarian quarters that USG is on the slide. Assuming that the standard of governance continues to decline—which is a reasonable assumption, since USG is run from the bottom up and there's no-one at the bridge—does it not follow that there will eventually be a powerful cry to install a better system? The Tea Party is an early movement in this direction, which lacks leadership and firm ideas.

Since I think that libertarians have relatively accurate beliefs about what constitutes sound governance, I am rather hoping that the end result will be a more libertarian constitution, or a government whose policies are more libertarian. Since Westerners can now easily access a great deal of information, and have ample leisure time, there is reason to think that the libertarian case will prevail. My probability estimate for the hypothesis, "Reboot goes smoothly and installs a much improved constitution" would increase if influential libertarians were to channel their efforts into something other than the open-borders campaign. Which part of this reasoning is starry-eyed?

DoJ writes:
(As for your ideas about a libertarian reboot of human/Western civilisation, I find it amusing that open borders advocates are the ones commonly stereotyped as the starry-eyed myopic dreamers, while restrictionists are classed as the ones rooted in reality, feet solidly planted on the ground.)

Seeing as how Iceland is essentially rebooting as we speak (of course, American media barely mentions this at all, wonder why...), I fail to see what is unrealistic about more reboots "this century". The status quo is not entirely stable.

In contrast, while heavy immigration can work (obvious example being the late 19th century US), (i) it may work best if the host country is then given a breather to "digest" (open borders advocates seem to think 1924 was a mistake, when in practice it seems to have been complementary with the earlier liberal policy), and (ii) there seems to be a lower limit on cultural affinity and human capital below which there is no net advantage, comparative or otherwise, to accepting the immigrant (comparative advantage is constrained by the reality that immigrants cannot reduce their wage and externality footprint arbitrarily close to zero).

John B. writes:

I think you're missing something. Yes, the world seems to be getting "Americanized" -- but that verb misleads because it implies that the target of the change is familiar practice, even traditional, to Americans.

Instead, I think it's more accurate to say that both the US and the the world are becoming "modernized"; this new world of smart phones and CGI movies, of cheap international travel and no ties in the office -- this world is also new to us! We, too, suffer disruption and unmet expectations.

Because some of these new features show up earlier in the US than in India doesn't mean that they are "American" in a deep sense.

guthrie writes:

@John B, what is '"American" in a deep sense'? I don't know if I am or not, myself... how might I know how deep my 'American sense' is?

8 writes:

My point wasn't that people do evil, it is that it is extremely superficial to claim that someone who likes to watch the Batman movie is in any way an "American", anymore than you are assimilated into China because you speak Chinese, watch kung-fu movies and eat tofu.

This is the view of nations as hotels, but the open borders lobby isn't selling the idea of nations as hotels, they argue that these immigrants will assimilate. i.e., if we swapped 100 million evangelicals into India and 100 million Hindus into the American South, the evangelicals would turn into vegetarian Hindus and the Hindus would become gun toting lovers of BBQ.

John B. writes:

Re "guthrie":

Well, each of the possible features I'm going to list has a time depth, so you can argue against any one of them. I'd point to these as representing what "Americanization" might entail in a deeper sense than buying an Ipad would:

  • The 'civic religion' most of us absorbed in grade and middle school, with "The Declaration", "The Constition" held up as touchstones; the mythologizing of the Pilgrims and the Civil War (at least in the North);
  • The widespread assumption that democracy was the way to resolve issues (I can remember as a child how even in groups of young children we'd do votes!); perhaps the sense of what "fair" meant goes here as well;
  • The shared feeling that we had rights, especially the rights of religion and free speech. I can recall kids talking back to teachers using "free speech" as a justification; I doubt that's something every culture sees!
  • The shared history of World War II;
  • set of assumptions about how one lived, traveled, was educated and was entertained. Synopticly, "cars, single-family houses, public schools, public libraries, movie theaters, limited-access highways, TV, telephones". Of course people in the US lived and live in other ways, but a pattern followed by a plurality has a cultural impact;
  • Other shared cultural elements, like baseball, can count for a lot, as the sharing can help create a positive feeling towards others.

Does that help answer the question a bit?

Maybe this'll help as a counter-example: if I were writing this many decades earlier, I'd list "having a frontier" as an important part of American-ness. Now it's not.

James writes:

Setting aside the racial problem, and the question of political externalities in its totality, these are my desiderata for assimilation:

#1 He respects the rule of law. He doesn't consider corruption, bribery or cheating (i.e. of strangers) to be acceptable, nor does he disregard the law of the land because he thinks it less valid than his religious law.

#2 He is civil. He takes care not to offend or upset his neighbours, he doesn't commit honour or voodoo killings, and he isn't a thug. He doesn't claim to hate the country and its citizens.

#3 He accepts Western civic evolution. This means respect for the free speech of other people, and respect for their private choices in social and economic customs.

Mention of cultural assimilation is often met with a glib response: "What is English culture, Morris dancing?" I hold these three things to be important, and I'm not too concerned about the rest: whether the immigrants think that democracy (distinct from civic freedoms) is a great system, or know of English history, or prefer to live exactly like the average Westerner.

That said, certain lifestyle choices (such as dressing women in the niqab) are borderline offensive to most Westerners. Since the West is rather etatist nowadays, of course there is little opportunity for people to make their social preferences felt by excluding such types—thus in these circumstances it is desirable for the private choices of immigrants to be moderate.

Not all immigrants meet these conditions. In particular the community of Muslim immigrants as a whole fails all three, which is why they are unpopular. As a matter of fact, they are not pre-assimilated in these respects; arguably, Western cultural imperialism is even a motivating factor for Islamism. (Of course there are exceptions, but the average difference from the desirable norm is quite large.)

guthrie writes:

I apologize, John B., but I'm afraid it's still not clear to me how any of those things couldn't be imparted to someone born elsewhere. How might Mr. Naik's experience - the lower culture shock experienced when moving to Chicago as opposed to another city in his home country of India - fit within your explanation of "Americanization"?

The point of the original post is that there is a measure of the world population who would engage seamlessly with our society, due in no small part to the world's demand for what our culture produces and our willing participation in that exchange. That it's only a small, 'doable' step (learning how to play baseball? Converting to the 'civil religion'? Finding out that Nazi's are bad?), for those who are so 'remotely assimilated', instead of a giant, insurmountable leap. The 'assimilation' argument against relaxed immigration is thus weakened to the extent that this might be true.

I'm not sure I see anything in your posts which would suggest that this ‘remote assimilation’ *couldn't* be the case. What am I missing?

Vipul Naik writes:

@James: My question for you: what's specifically "American" about any of these virtues? To argue that these constitute assimilation into America, you'd have to argue that America is better than other countries in these respects, and frankly, the evidence doesn't point to that. Crime rates in the US are anomalously high relative to Western Europe and East Asia (particularly Japan) -- they're about the same as India! Corruption-wise as well, the US is pretty middle-of-the-pack among developed nations. As for "respect for free speech," you might have more of a point there, though I don't know of strong quantitative indicators that the US is particularly robust on free speech. To the contrary, both public opinion in the US and the laws hardly point to a free press -- the public pays lip service to free speech, but is strongly opposed to it in practice whenever that speech is unpleasant. Among elites, free speech zones, political correctness, and laws against hate speech enjoy much support. According to this ranking, the US comes in at #47 on press freedom.

James writes:

Vipul, these virtues are not specifically American or Western. Assimilation to specifically American culture doesn't seem important to me—after all, there are various native cultures within the States. However, they are certainly desirable qualities. Assimilation to First World norms might be the best way of putting it.

Crime rates in the US are anomalously high relative to Western Europe and East Asia (particularly Japan) -- they're about the same as India! Corruption-wise as well, the US is pretty middle-of-the-pack among developed nations.

If 90% of prospective immigrants to America were from Western Europe and Japan, there would be substantially less opposition to mass immigration.

I don't know of strong quantitative indicators that the US is particularly robust on free speech

I was not referring to political or legal changes as a consequence of immigration, but to the experience of living next to immigrant communities that take gratuitous offence at small slights, and don't recognise the distinction between public and private acts.

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