Gilens vs. the Political Externalities of Immigration
By Bryan Caplan
Martin Gilens isn’t known for his work on immigration. Yet strangely, his two best-known books – Why Americans Hate Welfare and Affluence and Influence – have major implications about the effect of immigration on American politics. Everyone worried about the political externalities of immigration ought to read them and reflect.
In Why Americans Hate Welfare, Martin Gilens essentially blames the relatively small size of the American welfare state on racism. People don’t like helping poor people who don’t look like them. As a result, ethnically diverse countries like the U.S. have smaller welfare states.
Although I’m a staunch opponent of the welfare state, Gilens’ story makes a lot of sense. My main reservation: We shouldn’t confuse diminished benevolence with malevolence. White Americans clearly care about non-white Americans; they just don’t care about them as much as they care about white Americans.
What would happen, though, if Americans lived side-by-side with people they truly disliked? We should expect an even bigger negative effect on public support for the welfare state. And if Americans truly dislike anyone, it’s “foreigners.” Many can’t even pronounce the word “foreigner” without hostility. The upshot: Even if immigrants vote staunchly in favor of the welfare state, their presence reduces native support for the welfare state. The net effect of immigration on the size of the welfare state is therefore ambiguous.
If you’re a conservative or libertarian who fears the “political externalities” of immigration, Why Americans Hate Welfare suggests that your concerns may be displaced. The key word, though, is “may.” Gilens presents no specific evidence about the effect of immigration on the welfare state. Two of my former students, Zac Gochenour and Alex Nowrasteh, have been studying this question in depth, but the jury is still out.
Gilens’ latest book, Affluence and Influence, undermines the political externalities argument much more directly. His main finding is that American democracy is far more responsive to the policy preferences of the rich than the poor. In fact, the poor and middle class have almost no influence at all. If Gilens is right, granting citizenship to even staunchly statist immigrants is almost politically harmless… unless they’re rich.
I say “almost” because low-income immigration would slightly alter the identity of the (relatively) rich. Gilens focuses on the 90th percentile of the income distribution. So suppose you begin with 100 million native-born Americans. If you admit 100 million new immigrants with below-median income – a doubling of the population – Americans who used to be at the 80th percentile of the income distribution become the new 90th percentile. For immigrant inflows of realistic magnitude, though, you’d need a microscope to detect this effect.
Fair disclosure: Gilens’ analysis does imply that one kind of immigrant is far more politically dangerous than the staunchest nativists have ever imagined: high-income statists. While many elites from statist countries come here because they cherish our freer society, this is far from universal. Plenty come for purely for American money and American lifestyle. Philosophically, they still embrace their countries’ socialist, nationalist, and theocratic traditions. If these statist elites vote, our politicians will pay attention. If enough come, we’ll suffer under their yoke.
Slogan: The immigrants to fear aren’t Mexican laborers, but French professors.
P.S. In case I haven’t been blunt enough, I oppose immigration restrictions against people regardless of their political beliefs or income. My claim is purely descriptive: We probably underestimate the negative political externalities of high-income statists – and overestimate the negative political externalities of everyone else.