Bryan Caplan  

1896: Immigration and The Atlantic

Piketty's Dodge on Inequality... Francis A. Walker...
In 2013, The Atlantic sympathetically profiled the open borders movement.  Quite a change from this piece the magazine ran in 1896, when nearly open borders still prevailed.  The author, Francis Walker, begins with admirable clarity:
When we speak of the restriction of immigration, at the present time, we have not in mind measures undertaken for the purpose of straining out from the vast throngs of foreigners arriving at our ports a few hundreds, or possibly thousands of persons, deaf, dumb, blind, idiotic, insane, pauper, or criminal, who might otherwise become a hopeless burden upon the country, perhaps even an active source of mischief...

What is proposed is, not to keep out some hundreds, or possibly thousands of persons, against whom lie specific objections like those above indicated, but to exclude perhaps hundreds of thousands, the great majority of whom would be subject to no individual objections; who, on the contrary, might fairly be expected to earn their living here in this new country, at least up to the standard known to them at home, and probably much more. The question to-day is not of preventing the wards of our almshouses, our insane asylums, and our jails from being stuffed to repletion by new arrivals from Europe; but of protecting the American rate of wages, the American standard of living, and the quality of American citizenship from degradation through the tumultuous access of vast throngs of ignorant and brutalized peasantry from the countries of eastern and southern Europe.
Walker's view, perhaps surprisingly, is that open borders continued to enjoy popular support:
The first thing to be said respecting any serious proposition importantly to restrict immigration into the United States is, that such a proposition necessarily and properly encounters a high degree of incredulity, arising from the traditions of our country. From the beginning, it has been the policy of the United States, both officially and according to the prevailing sentiment of our people, to tolerate, to welcome, and to encourage immigration, without qualification and without discrimination. For generations, it was the settled opinion of our people, which found no challenge anywhere, that immigration was a source of both strength and wealth. Not only was it thought unnecessary carefully to scrutinize foreign arrivals at our ports, but the figures of any exceptionally large immigration were greeted with noisy gratulation.
Friends of immigration often point out that nativists today make the same arguments they made a century ago.  Nativists typically respond that times have changed.  Walker shows that even the "times have changed" argument is over a century old:
It is, therefore, natural to ask, Is it possible that our fathers and our grandfathers were so far wrong in this matter? Is it not, the rather, probable that the present anxiety and apprehension on the subject are due to transient causes or to distinctly false opinions, prejudicing the public mind? The challenge which current proposals for the restriction of immigration thus encounter is a perfectly legitimate one, and creates a presumption which their advocates are bound to deal with. Is it, however, necessarily true that if our fathers and grandfathers were right in their view of immigration in their own time, those who advocate the restriction of immigration to-day must be in the wrong? Does it not sometimes happen, in the course of national development, that great and permanent changes in condition require corresponding changes of opinion and of policy?
What exactly has changed?

1. "Complete exhaustion of the free public lands."
Fifty years ago, thirty years ago, vast tracts of arable laud were open to every person arriving on our shores, under the Preemption Act, or later, the Homestead Act. A good farm of one hundred and sixty acres could be had at the minimum price of $1.25 an acre, or for merely the fees of registration. Under these circumstances it was a very simple matter to dispose of a large immigration. To-day there is not a good farm within the limits of the United States which is to be had under either of these acts... The immigrant must now buy his farm from a second hand, and he must pay the price which the value of the land for agricultural purposes determines. In the case of ninety-five out of a hundred immigrants, this necessity puts an immediate occupation of the soil out of the question.
2. Falling agricultural prices.
There has been a great reduction in the cost of producing crops in some favored regions where steam-ploughs and steam-reaping, steam-threshing, and steam-sacking machines can be employed; but there has been no reduction in the cost of producing crops upon the ordinary American farm at all corresponding to the reduction in the price of the produce. It is a necessary consequence of this that the ability to employ a large number of uneducated and unskilled hands in agriculture has greatly diminished.
3. The rise of unions.
Still a third cause which may be indicated, perhaps more important than either of those thus far mentioned, is found in the fact that we have now a labor problem... There is no country of Europe which has not for a long time had a labor problem; that is, which has not so largely exploited its own natural resources, and which has not a labor supply so nearly meeting the demands of the market at their fullest, that hard times and periods of industrial depression have brought a serious strain through extensive non-employment of labor. From this evil condition we have, until recently, happily been free. During the last few years, however, we have ourselves come under the shadow of this evil, in spite of our magnificent natural resources.
Walker predictably paints open borders as a form of charity:
For it is never to be forgotten that self-defense is the first law of nature and of nations. If that man who careth not for his own household is worse than an infidel, the nation which permits its institutions to be endangered by any cause which can fairly be removed is guilty not less in Christian than in natural law. Charity begins at home; and while the people of the United States have gladly offered an asylum to millions upon millions of the distressed and unfortunate of other lands and climes, they have no right to carry their hospitality one step beyond the line where American institutions, the American rate of wages, the American standard of living, are brought into serious peril.
And he charmingly ends with intra-white racism:
The problems which so sternly confront us to-day are serious enough without being complicated and aggravated by the addition of some millions of Hungarians, Bohemians, Poles, south Italians, and Russian Jews.
The most striking feature of the essay: It moves back and forth between sounding totally dated and entirely modern.  All the specific economic conditions - the focus on land, farming, and unions - sound totally dated.  Yet the fundamental philosophy - the misanthropy, national socialism, the effort to paint immigrants as charity cases - sound entirely modern.  It's almost as if immigration restriction - then as now - is merely a solution in search of a problem.

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Jim Glass writes:

1. "Complete exhaustion of the free public lands."

The importance of the Homestead Act in driving, indeed creating, the mass immigration from Europe in the later 19th and early 20th Centuries cannot be overstated yet is typically seriously under-appreciated. It was very much an Immigration Act, and dramatically so, not merely one about homesteading.

It's often imagined that immigration was fairly free and open in the USA during its early years, but not so. Tough anti-immigrant rules arose in the US and across the states starting way back in the Adams administration, 1798. The Know Nothings and their kind were always a force to be dealt with, and southern politicians restricted immigration for their own purposes.

The Homestead Act was enacted in the midst of the Civil War, in 1862, while it was not going well for the Union. In addition to opportunistically satisfying general northern objectives while southern congressmen were absent, the Act had specific war-related goals: to get persons loyal to the North out west as fast as possible to flank the South (not least, in case the North lost the war), to aid federal revenue (the federal govt had to pay the cost of administering territories but homesteaders would be taxpayers), and to support the extension of railroads west.

However, with the war on, northern manpower was needed for the army and industry supporting it -- homesteaders heading west en masse could seriously undercut the war effort. But they had to come from somewhere. So the Act remarkably reversed all prior restrictions and made practically everyone eligible to homestead -- including non-Americans who simply made a "declaration of intent" to become an American.

The government then spent large amounts of money on subsidizing transportation companies' sending agents across Europe to promote and advertise immigration to the US (e.g, distributing posters showing farmers' plows in Montana pulling gold up out of the ground.) A federal Commissioner of Immigration organized and subsidized transportation of immigrants to the west, and so on.

The great European immigration to America was on. But is wasn't merely "free" immigration, it was active government policy, government-driven and subsidized immigration, initially in no small part related to war policy.

Thereafter until the 1920s, total immigration to the USA correlates remarkably closely year-by-year to the number of homestead acres settled.

Pajser writes:

Regarding the solution in search of the problem. Every radical change, even the best one, breaks many equilibria, many people are unable to adapt fast enough and they are hurt. People will make many arguments against radical change, I guess half of these valid, fortunately, for some time only.

Steve writes:

Dr. Caplan: If your dream came true, and we had open borders and no minimum wage starting today, what would be the U.S. population in 10-15 years? Why don't you give us your best estimate of the actual number.

Taeyoung writes:
Dr. Caplan: If your dream came true, and we had open borders and no minimum wage starting today, what would be the U.S. population in 10-15 years? Why don't you give us your best estimate of the actual number.

There is a sort of natural equation whereby the rapid increase of population due to immigration eventually renders life so miserable -- prices so high, squalor so unbearable -- that the demand to immigrate naturally falls off. Different populations have different tolerances for overcrowding and want, of course, so the first effect will merely be substitution as the natives are forced out in favour of the colonists, but the colonists have their limit as well, as all people have.

According to the Yucatan Times, Mexico is about to surpass Japan as the number two exporter of cars to the USA this year, and to overtake Canada by the end of 2015. So, with expanding economic opportunity south of the border, we just might see a market solution before our eyes.

Taeyoung writes:

Re: Sullivan:

Sure, if only Mexicans wanted to immigrate to the US. They only have an advantage in (illegally) immigrating to the US because Mexico polices immigration strictly like normal sovereign countries do. The equilibrium that may result isn't a "market" solution, it's just outsourcing our border control to Canada and Mexico. And of course, economic conditions in Mexico shouldn't have any direct effect on people from other countries coming in on visa waiver programs and then overstaying illegally.

MikeP writes:


Calling a North American Free Migration Agreement "outsourcing our border control" misses the fact that the entire land border of NAFMA would be 700 miles long -- less than one tenth the current 7,500 mile land border of the US.

So of course it's a market solution: It recognizes a larger legal labor market, and it is far more efficient in terms of border control.

However, I can see that if the US correctly wanted to open its borders to the rest of the world too, while Canada and Mexico did not, that could pose a mild problem. But it should be resolvable by requiring US-only immigrants to enter through US ports and not allowing their visas to enter Canada and Mexico. Suffice it to say I don't foresee a great migration to the US in order to transit into the rest of NAFMA.

Steve writes:


What's your best estimate of the actual number?

Brian writes:

Sorry, Taeyoung.

" So, with expanding economic opportunity south of the border, we just might see a market solution before our eyes."

Actually, net migration between Mexico and the USA has already been in the Mexican direction for six years now, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The continued immigration from south of the border is arriving from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. Those countries have a lot less industry than Mexico, much lower material standards of living, and offer less opportunity to get an education to children. The result is poorer and more desperate immigrants who bring less education and skill to the USA than the Mexicans used to.

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