David R. Henderson  

Nowrasteh on Sowell and Immigration

Averages and Margins: A Teachi... The sticky label of 'Social Da...

Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute, one of my favorite Cato Institute writers (although the list of my favorites is long) has published two excellent critiques of one of my favorite Hoover Institution writers, Thomas Sowell.

In Alex's July 19 critique, he debates Sowell about the microeconomics of restricting the supply of unskilled immigrant labor. Sometimes when you see debates between people about micro and they don't know micro, it's like watching two drunks fighting: it isn't pretty or even interesting. But both Sowell and Nowrasteh are skilled microeconomists and so they agree on a lot and get the analysis. Here's a highlight that shows their main difference on the issue:

Furthermore, Sowell is right that the economy would adjust to a decrease in the supply of low-skilled labor, but he fails to mention that it would do so by shrinking. The economy would likewise adjust if the American government declared that electricity was illegal or all imports were banned. Arguing that the economy would adjust to artificially created scarcity does not justify creating such scarcity through government fiat.

Immigration restrictions increase labor scarcity, especially in niches of the labor market where relatively few Americans work. The main effect of increasing labor scarcity by further restricting the supply of low-skilled immigrant workers will not be to raise the wages of Americans, thereby drawing them to pick crops; it would be to kill large portions of the agricultural sector and other portions of the economy that demand large numbers of relatively low-skilled workers to operate most efficiently and profitably.

In his July 22 critique, Alex leads off by giving Sowell his due, pointing out how much he has learned from Sowell's writing. Alex then writes:
But in his recent columns and comments on immigration, Sowell has not approached that topic with the same rigorous attention to detail that he has in his books. His reliance on incomplete historical examinations in his columns leads him to seemingly support a vast array of government interventions. In these writings, Sowell makes the same mistakes that he accuses the "anointed" of making in many of his books.

That's a strong statement. Does Nowrasteh back it up? Largely, yes. His main critique is of Sowell's claim that the Dillingham Commission of 1907 provided a well-informed basis for the discussion of immigration laws. Nowrasteh reveals a lot of facts about the Dillingham Commission that undercut Sowell's claim. The whole post is worth reading but here's one:
Information gathered by the Commission that showed new immigrants succeeding and assimilating was ignored or explained away because it contrasted with the world view of the commission members. When charitable societies started to report on questionnaire slips that large numbers of Western and Northern Europeans received aid, "the slips were returned to societies for further information or for corrections." The Commission defined retardation for children as being behind in school - an absurd definition designed to exaggerate retardation among non-English speaking immigrant children. In American schools, the Dillingham Commission found that 66.9 percent of Polish Jewish students and 63.6 percent of Southern Italians students were retarded. The Dillingham Commission was intensely worried about Asian immigration.

Alex cleverly uses Sowell's own evidence published elsewhere against Sowell's current claim about the Dillingham Commission's wisdom:
Asians and their descendants, a group viciously criticized by the Dillingham Commission, have culturally assimilated and their rate of economic success exceeds that of other Americans. You don't have to take my word for it, just read what Thomas Sowell has written on the issue. Italians, Jews, and other immigrant groups criticized by the Commission also culturally assimilated and their descendants have been very successful.

I have one criticism. Alex writes:
One worry about the Germans was that their collectivist culture and political struggles in Germany would clash with the individualism necessary to make freedom flourish in America. Catholics were considered to harbor a deep anti-republicanism and a culture inimical to liberty. Time has shown how absurd those worries were.

Alex may be right that these worries were absurd but I'm not sure he is. When I think of Germans immigrating 100 years ago, I think of their concentration in Wisconsin, which became one of the leading brewers of collectivist policies. Were the German immigrants involved and trying to get Bismarckian welfare-state policies imposed? I bet they were. But I don't know.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
shecky writes:

Not at all surprising. Sowell's long abandoned the rigor of his earlier notable work to ride the conservative gravy train.

Jeff writes:
Catholics were considered to harbor a deep anti-republicanism and a culture inimical to liberty. Time has shown how absurd those worries were.

Catholics were a pretty integral part of the New Deal coalition, were they not? Although plenty of old stock Protestants were, too. Still, "absurd" does not strike me as the right word to use in that sentence.

eric falkenstein writes:

"abandoned the rigor"? Every economist not publishing in JET has 'abandoned rigor' in some sense, and profitably so. I don't think much of what Milton Friedman did after The Consumption Function would count as rigorous, was that all twaddle? Of course not.

As per Ben Franklin's fears about Germans, etc., there's a lot different between those immigrants and how they were treated. Luckily, we have had over 50 years with large numbers of Mexican immigrants, and areas where large numbers of such immigrants have concentrated, so we don't need the trans-century analogy. I don't think it's a very attractive to think about doubling down based on that experience.

Mark Bahner writes:


A bit off-topic, but this is a fascinating map from Wikipedia:

Top Ancestries by County

Scott writes:

In fairness, I think the Germans were in a lot of other places as well. It's also interesting that so few people throw the collectivist ideology claim at Asian immigrants, even though they come from the most intensely collectivist places in the world by pretty much any measure you choose.

Maybe immigrants from more collectivist/statist countries are more interventionist in outlook, but seems like you could easily argue the opposite: that people leaving those countries for the US are more likely to appreciate American individualism, or that those who made it to the US are likely to be less collectivist by nature, but would need to see some data...

ThomasH writes:

German immigrants were crucial to getting Lincoln nominated and keeping Missouri from going over to the Confederacy.

guthrie writes:

It's not proof, but Milwaukee has elected three Socialist mayors...

There were different waves of German immigrants and their outlook changed over time.

The first were religious minorities who came in search of religious freedom and were quite happy with American liberty, only appalled by slavery: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1688_Germantown_Quaker_Petition_Against_Slavery

Then there were waves before and after 1848/9 when the revolution had been suppressed. Most of them were "Democrats" in the German sense of the time which meant they wanted a republic like in the US. Their outlook was mostly Classical Liberal and they were also happy with American individualism, and again appalled by slavery (so those "Democrats" became Republicans): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/48er

As the German political landscape changed, there were more and more Socialists who emigrated to the US because there were more of them in Germany, and because they suffered persecution under Bismarck's Socialist Law from 1878 until 1890. Many even of the leading Social Democrats emigrated to the US at the time, especially the more radical "Anarchists", such as Johann Most.

But already in 1878, German Classical Liberal Ludwig Bamberger claimed in his "Germany and Socialism" that the American trade union movement was dominated by German immigrants. And German immigrants really played an influential role there as well as in setting up Socialist parties (although those were never particularly successful in the US).

I doubt those immigrants were Bismarck fans who wanted to introduce his policies to the US. But then they and Bismarck had a similar outlook. In 1881 Bismarck let it be known via his press, that he was a Socialist himself, just not a Social Democrat (i. e. also in favor of a republic and atheism).

So maybe it was more of a mixed bag. The nativists of the first half of 19th century who were against German immigration were not reacting to their collectivism. And later German immigrants were ahead of their time, but also in tune with a general trend towards a more collectivist outlook that was also shared by many Americans of other backgrounds.

Arthur_500 writes:

The topic of immigration has as a basis that the immigrant will remain a resident and citizen of the Country. Does discussion of the merits of immigration change when the underlying basis is changed?
What about the immigrant who has no intention of becoming a citizen? We have immigrants whose sole purpose in being here is to get money to send "home." They intend to go home one day themselves. IN other words we are not discussing immigrants but rather temporary labor.

How does the discussion change, if at all, when we are discussing the effect of temporary labor and its desirability pro and con?

dave smith writes:

Would there be a selection bias? That is, for an overly simplistic example, if Germans were socialist would not the least socialist Germans leave Germany?

Probably not, but I thought I'd throw it out there.

Actually German Americans are a stronghold of the Republican party, they are more likely to vote Republican (along with Dutch and English Americans) than other white groups, even controlling for small-town residency and income:


Okay, it is debatable whether you can equate Republican with anti-collectivism.

Probably German American Socialists were more visible because they were concentrated in large cities and stood out with their views. But many German Americans were and are rural and quite conservative.

Apart from that, much of German immigration occurred before Bismarck went state socialist in the late 1870s and also at a time when Socialists were a fringe in German politics.

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