Nowrasteh on Sowell and Immigration
By David Henderson
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.