Bryan Caplan  

Somin on the Backlash to Desegregation

The Question on Regulation I W... Fred Smith reviews Charles Mur...
Ilya Somin emailed me this response to my post on the backlash to desegregation.  Reprinted with his permission.

As you know, I rarely disagree with you about immigration issues. But I think the backlash against desegregation was a much bigger deal than you suggest.

First, it's worth noting that the first effort at desegregation during the 1860s and 70s created a big enough backlash that blacks were horribly oppressed for decades thereafter. It is debatable whether the federal government could have managed things better or could have broken the resistance if they tried harder. But it's a sobering precedent, at the very least.

Second, during the 1950s and 60s, although desegregation was ultimately successful  there was considerable violence and extensive "massive resistance" of other kinds. Ultimately, the resistance failed because, among other things, the federal effort to break it commanded widespread support everywhere but among white southerners, and even a significant minority of them had lost faith in Jim Crow by the 50s. Had it been attempted earlier, when resistance was stronger and will to break it weaker, the result might well have been different. On balance, I think the effort to expand black rights during Reconstruction still did more good than harm, but the issue is debatable, and the experience with Jim Crow suggests it took a long time before public opinion evolved to  the point where a large-scale effort to break down Jim Crow could succeed.

The lessons for immigration policy are not exactly straightforward and unequivocal. If I had to compare the two, I would say that current public opinion on immigration is roughly where opinion on race relations was in the 1930s and 40s, or - perhaps even somewhat earlier than that. There is growing doubt about the justice of immigration restrictions, but as yet only a relatively small minority supports the complete dismantling of the segregation system (even though many more people are willing to countenance more moderate reforms).

Me again:

I agree on the backlash in the 1860s and 1870s, though we should think of that primarily as the backlash to abolition of slavery.  And the net positive value of that change seems clear-cut to me.

For desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s, though, resistance seems feeble indeed relative to the magnitude of the change.  Every murder listed here was tragic, but desegregation cost fewer lives than 1% of a tiny civil war.

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Conscience of a Citizen writes:

Economically, abolishing Jim Crow 1950-1970 rearranged the status, income, and to some extent wealth of some people inside the US but did not change the size or composition of the US population. It had only modest effects on per-capita income measured at the national or even State level, because abolishing Jim Crow did not change the all-critical parameter of industrial capital per worker. The backlash was fairly small because relatively few people suffered economic injury when Jim Crow was (finally) abolished (the transition from agrarian to industrial economy was basically complete by 1950 and industrial emploment was still growing rapidly. Indeed, that fueled elite desire to abolish Jim Crow to broaden the labor pool. Also the Great Society expansion of welfare spending in the 1960's cushioned income shocks.)

Mass immigration today would likely provoke a much bigger backlash because it would cause much more economic injury to native citizens. Mass immigration would sharply reduce industrial capital per worker, driving down incomes broadly at the same time as (though by a different mechanism) immigrant labor would compete down wages. There would be no way to buy off opposition with increased welfare spending, either.

ThomasH writes:

A good analogy is "Globalization." There is no reason to doubt that increased openness to trade has raised total incomes, but a lot of people did not benefit and indeed were probably harmed. This has led to increased opposition to further trade liberalization and perhaps to neo-liberal policies in general.

Could a credible commitment be made to compensate losers from increased low skilled immigration?

Actually, I think a more fundamental problem with open borders is that it would risk the rate of inflow surpassing the rate at which cultural assimilation can work. I think this has happened in some parts of Europe although part of their problem has been a lower initial capacity for assimilation and little effort to assimilate. This has gone by the name "multiculturalism" which has not meant simply tolerance of cultural diversity, but acceptance for a long time of cultural practices that are incompatible with a liberal society.

MikeDC writes:
although desegregation was ultimately successful

Was it? Formally and in some social respects, yes, but the most cursory statistics show African Americans are in many ways a "separate people" from other Americans.

For desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s, though, resistance seems feeble indeed relative to the magnitude of the change.

Because the change wasn't as big as you claim, and because, fortunately, folks figured out that there were less violent ways of avoiding integration. That is, I'm not trying to argue for the virtue of segregationists, but it's evident that sending one's kid to parochial school instead of public school is a less violent solution to the "problem" of integration than conducting a terror campaign of lynchings.

So... it's better that desegregation was frequently defeated non-violently, but the key point is that desegregation was often defeated.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Let's look at what the legislation for Civil Rights implied and enforced.

Perhaps we can accept that all rights require concomitant obligations for their existence, let alone their social validity.

It is the obligation of all not to interfere with the religious worship (or ideology) of others that forms the right to freedom of worship. To the extent that obligation is qualified (banning human sacrifice practices, e.g.) the right my be qualified.

When legislation delineates "Rights" or entitlements it imposes obligations. If those obligations are not recognized and accepted, in the forms and degrees delineated, by those upon whom imposed, there will be reactions - varying with the capacities of those imposed upon, and the degrees of recognition and acceptance.

Throughout America we are still in the process of "digesting" what is valid for what degrees of recognition and acceptance from what has been attempted to achieve, by legislatively and regulatory imposed obligations, conditions of "is" based on concepts of "ought."

phil writes:

whose interests is a government supposed to look after in a representative democracy?

who are all these politicians actually representing?


any action a state does is going to redistribute wealth

why doesn't it have a duty to act in a manner that redistributes it as much toward who it purported represents as possible?


its strikes me that there is a massive agency problem going on here


open borders can be a really good thing for humanity writ large, and a really bad thing for current citizens of 1st world nations at the same time


as a thought experiment, lets grant the idea that open borders will double world GPD:

US$87.25 trillion x 2 / 7 billion people = $24928.5714 US$

opening borders will equalized per capita GDPs somewhat across borders, how much? who knows? seems like an interesting question to me, I'd love to read some opinions on what that might look like

US per capita GDP was $53,041.98 USD, which is a long way from 24,000

if world GDP doubles and completely equalizes that's a disaster for the average US citizen, dwarfing the Great Depression by several orders of magnitude

even if it doesn't completely equalize there is a lot of space for economic disaster,

if there is reason to think that the redistributed pie leaves the average US citizen better off than before I'd love to consider,

the case doesn't seem evident on the face of it


"what right do US citizens have for living as wealthy as they do when people in sub Sahara Africa are so poor?"

that's a fair question, and if politicians and proponents of open borders want to make the case to the voting population on that basis

"hey, this is going to cut your income in half, but will be great for people in the rest of the world"

well, that would be a respectable way to phrase it

(I suspect that wouldn't garner much popular support)

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

@ Phil

whose interests is a government supposed to look after in a representative democracy?

Under the original concept of Constitutional delineations: None; those of no one; the government had delineated functions; interests were private and adjudicated legislatively and judicially.

who are all these politicians actually representing?

They are exercising delegated authority, not "representing." In so doing they may associate their functions with any number of particular interests.

any action a state does is going to redistribute wealth

why doesn't it have a duty to act in a manner that redistributes it as much toward who it purported represents as possible?

A "State" is an embodiment of authority, the "duty" lies with those who actively consent to, or passively accept that authority, to do so with limiting principles. The question should be: What are the limiting principles?

"what right do US citizens have for living as wealthy as they do when people in sub Sahara Africa are so poor?"

Rights arise out of concomitant obligations. The Rights of U S citizens (and residents) do not arise out concomitant obligations of peoples elsewhere in the world. Those obligations have neither been accepted by, nor imposed upon other peoples to create rights in the U.S..

Conscience of a Citizen writes:


The idea that mass migration ("open borders") will "double" world GDP or even boost it substantially is false and every honest development economist knows it.

We know it because we know that GDP-per-worker is linear with industrial-capital-per-worker, for all the countries in the world regardless of wealth level, with only minor variations due to local factors.

Read it and weep, as they say. Since migrants bring no industrial capital with them (and typically very little human capital) all they can do is expand the pool of labor trying to utilize a destination country's existing industrial capital. That means reduced capital-per-worker yielding reduced GDP-per-worker. Since total GDP is just (GDP-per-worker times number-of-workers), mass migration cannot and therefore will not increase overall GDP.*

The only way to increase GDP-per-worker is to accumulate more capital. Sadly, mass migration would retard capital accumulation because feeding, housing, and policing the migrants in destination countries would divert local surplus to consumption instead of investment.

(The situation would be worse if the policing failed, which it likely would once the migrants outnumbered the natives. According to Michael Clemens' "double world GDP" survey paper beloved of open-borders advocates, "doubling world GDP" (Clemens' actual median estimate is a 40% world GDP increase, not a doubling) will require migrants to outnumber natives in rich countries by 3:1. No kidding; go read the paper. Three migrants to each native in all rich countries. That obviously rules out universal-suffrage democracy as a form of government, unless the natives wish to surrender all of their personal wealth to the migrants right after the next election.)

We don't even have to examine distributional questions-- thinking about aggregate effects is enough to falsify all the nonsense from mass-migration advocates.

Of course, wild-eyed advocates of mass migration keep asserting that the migrants will increase productivity in destination countries. That is intellectually dishonest and they should feel ashamed of telling lies, even if they think that lying is the best way to promote their essentially-religious view that every human being on Earth has a moral right to move immediately into one of the few rich countries on the planet and confiscate the surplus which the natives have painstakingly built up therein.

*Something like exploiting underdeveloped natural resources in a particular geographic place might buck the trend, but such cases will be minor.

phil writes:

@ R Richard Schweitzer

"interests were private and adjudicated legislatively and judicially."

what does it mean for an interest to be adjudicated legislatively?

@ R Richard Schweitzer & Conscience of a Citizen thanks for both of your responses, they both contained a lot of food for thought

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

@ Phil

"interests were private and adjudicated legislatively and judicially."
what does it mean for an interest to be adjudicated legislatively?

One of the best (and most thorough) explications of legislative adjudication is set forth in Walter Lippmann's The Good Society
. An encapsulation would be inadequate; but the concept may be graphed:

Individuals and groups (not "States") have particular interests, the advancement of which may not only conflict, but impact the rights of others not involved (creating the need to establish obligations on those advancing their interests). Rather than legislators advocating for ("representing") any particular interest (or for the manner of its advancement), the correct function of the legislator in shaping applicable Rules of Policy should be to weigh and balance any conflicts of interest and adjudicate the impacts of their advancement (and means for advancement)on the social order at large.

Instead we have seen drifts toward determining how social order "ought" to be influenced and shaped by developing particular impact from particular interests. There has been a resultant growth of legislative advocacy of interests.

In an open society, the use of legislation to advance particular interests or support the manner of their advancement is a perversion which erodes the open society - as we see.

That perversion is cloaked in the terminology of "the interest of the State."

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top