Immigration and Institutions: A Response to Jonny Anomaly

Writing at Quillette, Dr. Jonny Anomaly (yes, that’s his real name) discusses immigration, institutions, and why some immigration restrictions may be necessary.  It’s an interesting article, although I find his rationale for immigration restrictions rather weak.

Dr. Anomaly writes:

For one thing, the social norms and political institutions that promote prosperity are often quite fragile, as evidenced by recent events in Turkey, and the failure of constitutional democracy to take hold in Iraq after American attempts to replace dictatorship and tribalism with a secular liberal order.

I disagree with his interpretation of the evidence here.  The two examples he provides are where a liberal order was forced upon the area, rather than developed naturally.  Institutions, when imposed, do tend to be fragile.  This is seen in the work of many great developmental economists work (for example, see Doing Bad by Doing Good by Chris Coyne or The Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly).  However, where liberal institutions develop naturally, they tend to be highly robust.  The United States is an excellent example where despite many shocks to the system over the approximately 250 years of our existence, we remain a highly liberal country.  Shocks have included invasion, mass immigration (by both intelligent and less intelligent people), famine, drought, civil war, terrorism, etc.  The US is not ideally liberal, and there have been missteps, but the whole thing hasn’t collapsed the way it would have if institutions were inherently fragile.

He goes on to say:

Many supporters of open borders fail to distinguish between different qualities of immigrants. They assume that if a high level of immigration has benefitted some countries in particular eras, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia in the 19th and 20th centuries, then it is simply the quantity of migrants, rather than the composition of migrants, that caused prosperity in these nations. But this is a fallacious inference that depends on the assumption that all people are just as likely to promote the welfare of a country regardless of their values, skills, or traits.

In his recent book, Garrett Jones argues that a nation’s wealth and welfare depend crucially on the qualities of its citizens, including IQ, conscientiousness, and the ability to delay gratification. These personality traits are heritable, are (according to Jones) positively correlated with prosperity, and (according to criminologists) negatively correlated with crime.

The problem with this argument is that it doesn’t appear, at least prima facie, to be correct.  The mass immigration of the 19th and 20th Centuries was not of high-skilled immigrants.  Rather the opposite, really: they tended to be the dregs of European society.  And yet, America prospered.  Those who attempted to turn America toward Socialist institutions were not uneducated immigrants, but rather highly educated native WASPs.

This is not to discount the importance of intelligence in economic activity; quite the opposite.  But rather, an economy is made up of all kinds of goods: high quality, low quality and everything in between.  A dynamic economy allows all resources to find a niche, including labor.

There’s more I could say on this article, and maybe I will down the line, but I want to finish off with this: the evidence on immigration’s impact on the economy is far from crystal clear.  There are copious amounts of evidence pointing in both directions.  Given this ambiguity, I argue a liberal society demands that freedom is preserved and that the action which would restrict freedom (in this case, restricting freedom of commerce of the citizens of the society) must be shunned until evidence beyond a reasonable doubt is presented.


4 thoughts on “Immigration and Institutions: A Response to Jonny Anomaly

  1. Well, perhaps I might suggest that the immigrant prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he or she is not going to impose on me? There’s a welfare state and that’s not going anywhere. And if hurt, illegal immigrants will still call 911 and nobody is going to let anybody die in the street, and further many will send their noncitizen children to school and by constitutional dictate we can’t even stop that by the way. For red-america the single largest expense faced is taxes. By far. Some of that imposition causes resentment, but with respect to non-citizens, I can assure you I am doubly resentful.


    • Craig

      Assuming you agree with Jon that there is no clear economic argument against immigration, what is the basis for your double resentment?


    • This is an interesting question, Craig. Let me throw it back at you: absent any previous history (ie, the person is a fugitive), why should the person have to prove anything?

      Regarding welfare, that’s a good point, but an easy way to mitigate that concern is to simply legalize immigration. Legal people are far easier to track for taxation purposes, so this would narrow (if not entirely eliminate) the gap between system use and taxes paid.


  2. Jonny Anomaly wrote:

    ” Many supporters of open borders fail to distinguish between different qualities of immigrants. ”

    Similarly, many supporters of closed borders don’t distinguish between different qualities of citizens.

    Liked by 1 person

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