David Frum Accidentally Makes the Case for More Immigration
By David Henderson
My fellow immigrant from Canada, David Frum, has a long article in The Atlantic in which he argues for cutting legal immigration in half. The whole piece, titled “If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will,” is worth reading, partly because he makes a serious case for reducing immigration and partly because, along the way, he presents a number of facts about immigration that both critics and advocates of more immigration should be aware of. Citing a whole lot of his facts would make this too long. I will settle for citing one fact on crime that, by the way, says that many critics of immigration are missing the boat. Then I’ll consider Frum’s own reasoning about the effects of immigration on the welfare state that, for critics of the welfare state like Bryan Caplan and me, actually bolsters the case for immigration.
First, the fact on crime. Under the heading “IMMIGRANTS ARE MAKING AMERICA SAFER,” Frum writes:
Generally, immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans do. And although the children of immigrants commit crimes at much higher rates than their parents do, some evidence suggests that cities with higher percentages of immigrants have experienced steeper reductions in crime. President Trump speaks often about the victims of crime committed by undocumented immigrants, but the years of high immigration since 1990 have seen the steepest declines in crime since modern record-keeping began.
I gave more detail on this in my Defining Ideas article last week.
Now to his reasoning about the welfare state. Frum writes:
The demand for universal health coverage might gain political force if so many of the uninsured were not noncitizens and nonvoters.
Get that? In David Frum’s view, the largest increase in the welfare state that has some chance of passing would be more likely “if so many of the uninsured were not noncitizens and nonvoters.” In Frum’s view, failure to get universal health coverage, by which he almost certainly means some combination of large government subsidies and more government regulation than we now have, is a bad thing. Frum is actually buttressing the point that fellow EconLog blogger Bryan Caplan makes: more immigration would actually undercut support for the welfare state.
Later, Frum makes the point, that many critics of illegal immigration miss, that some large elements of the welfare state are ones that most illegal immigrants will fail to qualify for, writing:
In a decade or two, millions of people without legal status will reach the age of 65. What happens to them? Under present law, they will receive no Social Security from the United States; they will not qualify for Medicare. Will we allow them to sink into illness and destitution in their old age?
I think that by “we,” he means the U.S. government. Notice two huge groups he leaves out? First, us, meaning those tens of millions of us who are legal residents wanting to help, and, second, the immigrants themselves, most of whom will likely anticipate that they won’t be bailed out and might start saving (and might already be saving) for that possibility.
Also in the piece, Frum argues that with fewer immigrants during about 60 years of the 20th century, we got the rise of big government, writing:
The years of slow immigration, 1915 to 1975, were also years in which the United States became a more cohesive nation: the years of the civil-rights revolution, the building of a mass middle class, the construction of a national social-insurance system, the projection of U.S. power in two world wars. As immigration has accelerated, the country seems to have splintered apart.
My guess is that we would have had the good parts of the civil-rights revolution even if we had had more immigrants. By good parts I mean those that banned government enforcement of segregation, which was a big deal in the south. But that’s only a guess. And notice that even with more immigration, we are getting the “building of a mass upper class” as more and more people get higher income. If the construction of a national social-insurance system depended on having few immigrants–I’m not sure it did–then so much the worse for restricting immigration. I doubt that he can make the case that reduce immigration starting in 1915 helped U.S. entry into World War I less likely. I wish he could make that case, given how U.S. entry into the war made a mess of things in Europe and helped cause World War II. But I don’t think he can.
Two final points.
First, elsewhere in the piece, Frum argues, correctly I think, that illegal immigrants will be more likely to take risky jobs where the government is not actively enforcing safety regulations. He sees this as bad. I could understand that if Frum wants to let these people come in illegally. But remember that Frum is advocating reducing immigration and deporting illegal immigrants, which would mean that many of these people would not have the option of those jobs. Frum seems to understand that what would prevent these workers from turning in their employees is the fear that they will be deported. But he seems to forget that deporting many of them, which he advocates, would make them worse off. So in his statement of concern, he seems to be shedding crocodile tears.
Second, Frum has two hits on economists, both of which are inaccurate but one of which is cleverly stated.
The clever one: “Yet when immigration is the subject, policy makers tend to concede the microphone to the economists—precisely the profession that looks at people and sees workers instead.”
I wish they conceded to us. We would have way more immigration if they did. But we economists do see both workers and people. And we even see them when they are living in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
The other one: “From a labor economist’s perspective, he [the American who is unemployed because he has been displaced by an immigrant] has ceased to exist. Immigration’s economic costs and benefits will be calculated without reference to him.”
I have no idea where Frum got that idea.
Addendum: My disagreement with Frum is over his views. I think he’s a great writer and a great editor. He’s the editor I worked with when he was at the Wall Street Journal and I wrote one of my first big articles for them (misleadingly titled), “Sorry Saddam, Oil Embargoes Don’t Hurt U.S.”