Immigrants and Equality

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If you look carefully at the current immigration debate in the US, it pits immigrants, business interests and a thin layer of middle class do gooders on one side against  nationalists and working class people in general on the other side. What struck me about this arrangement is that it’s exactly the same structure you’ll find in dozens of other times and places. In modern Korea, the people who like “외국인 노동자” (foreign laborers) are generally business interests, immigrants themselves and a thin layer of justice people. The people who want to send the foreigners packing are, you guessed it, the poor and working class along with the nationalists. From my reading of “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” the French and even the Nazis seem to have had the same viewpoint with their foreign and native Jews. The Yellow Scare in the late 19th century – surprise surprise! – broke down mostly along the lines of big businesses supporting the Chinese against the anti-immigrant passions of California labor unions. Even the Roman Republic, during the debates on whether or not to grant citizenship to the Italian Allies, faced a similar split.

Why is this so? I think there are two main reasons or, to be more precise, two main inequalities. The first is an inequality between immigrants and natives. To put it bluntly, immigrants are on average smarter, more entrepreneurial, more upwardly mobile, less prone to crime than natives of similar income and their kids are better, too.  They are generally really good at integrating and this doesn’t change when we focus on immigrants from “shit hole countries.”

This makes sense even if we dispose of the data and work completely by logical deduction. The requirements for being a poor native are only two: don’t succeed and don’t be dead yet. The requirements for being an immigrant are much more extensive. The immigrant must be brave enough to leave behind their family and friends, adaptive enough to survive in an alien culture, smart enough to either learn the new language or inventive enough to survive without being able to speak, physically strong enough to survive the journey and tough enough to to endure the inevitable setbacks that come with stepping into the unknown. People who meet the criteria for being a poor native are obviously clearing a much, much lower bar than the immigrants are.

The second inequality is between the countries of origin and the destination countries. It seems pretty obvious that most folks would rather live in the US, England or South Korea than Mexico, Syria or the Philippines. If for some reason you doubt that, here are the quality of life rankings. So, in short, immigration is the process of very competitive people leaving worse cultures in order to compete with the least competitive people in the best cultures.

Looking at it this way, the consistent fault lines pro and anti immigration make more sense.  The poor and working classes are obviously threatened by incoming groups of people who are, on average, smarter, more entrepreneurial, less criminal and more adaptive than they are. After all, on a level playing field, they’re going to get their butts kicked. We might look at these people as anti-competition.

A such, they team up with with nationalists. The nationalists, while they might also be part of the working class, would seem to have a different motivation. They, as their rhetoric clearly demonstrates, see the immigrants as carriers of bad culture. This makes some sense. After all, the United States certainly profits by NOT adhering to Mexican cultural norms and Japan would not be happier if it gave up its own traditions in favor of Cambodian values. From the nationalists’ point of view, then, the immigrant represents a sort of disease vector, a covert means to import Sharia Law and drug cartels. We might look upon these people as opposing the worst cultures.

The businessman’s motivation is obvious. The better the workers he can find, the more money he can earn. Or to invert this viewpoint, the more he is forced to use less competitive native workers, the less he can compete with other businesses. His entire world is built on a foundation of merit and he is unlikely to sympathize with the natives who, in essence, are asking to be protected from competition. The businessman is then oriented towards the meritocracy and confident in his ability to assimilate his immigrant workers into the more desirable culture.

The immigrant is the businessman’s ally because, as the smarter, more upwardly mobile, less criminal person, she is also likely a believer in the meritocracy. After all, in a meritocracy, smart, upwardly mobile and self-controlled people tend to win. However, the immigrant is a risk to bring the broken parts of her original country with her. As we can see in the Muslim areas of Western Europe or in the generations long pain in the neck French Canada has been to the English-speaking parts of Canada, unassimilated minorities are a legitimate threat to the stability and power of the more desirable cultures.

As for the do-gooders, I guess they provide ideological cover for everyone else’s self interested positions. 

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The next question, for me at least, is how we balance the priorities of these four groups. Do we care about the suffering of downwardly mobile natives looking to hang on or do we care about disadvantaged but highly competitive immigrants? Just saying that we “care about the downtrodden” does nothing here since helping the former almost invariable hurts the latter and vice versa. Do we value “our” people over “those people?” Do we value the continuation of more successful cultures over the contributions of immigrants (on average more competitive people) and their cultural baggage? Do we value competitive prowess in our work forces and our businesses more than we care about the downwardly mobile of our own societies?

Personally, I value merit much more than any sentimental attachment to the weaker members of my group and see assimilation as a positive good. In other words, I want to see lots of immigrants who more or less blend into the dominant culture. That said, as an immigrant myself, I’m probably biased. Whose interests do you think should come first?

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8 comments

  1. Robert William Garrido · · Reply

    While well reasoned, you don’t address the difference between legal and non-legal immigration.
    In the USA pro-immigration activists don’t allow the distinction, and it is not intellectually honest.

    1. In this particular context, it doesn’t matter. Illegal immigrants are just as far ahead of poor natives as the legal immigrants are.

  2. A meritocracy seems right and proper to me. Of course, as a person with moderately high human capital (education), it would.

    But I also think society has to work for everyone. And I don’t think everyone who is poor deserves to be. I wouldn’t be where I am without a lot of opportunities throughout my life, opportunities that many people never get.

    I don’t think there are easy answers here. (Despite what partisans say, there rarely are for political questions, which is why they’re political.) It seems to me we have to find a balance of some sort while also showing compassion for those affected. Real solutions are often messy ones.

    1. I think your answer is entirely reasonable. I’m in kind of the same boat. I tend to win fair competitions partially because I got an unfair amount of education and support as a kid. However, even more than education, I think that access to rich people is vital.

      I ended up going to high school with a lot of seriously rich kids. I was never one of them, but just by being in their presence every day I learned two things:

      A) they aren’t superhumanely smart or anything to be intimidated by.
      B) they do have a series of practices and secret handshakes I didn’t have. Mastering these customs was and is vital to accessing the influence networks they use. When I read JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy he mentioned almost exactly the same thing about his escape from whitetrashville.

      This, while difficult, I feel is solvable. Maybe not in the US, but in a relatively new first workd society, I think you could shift the ways school admissions work. Take the SAT as an example.

      Right now high SAT scorers tend to cluster in elite high schools. Low scorers tend to cluster in the ghettos and trailer parks. This creates lots of problems but one of the biggest is that our ghetto teenagers never get to see how successful people live and act. This would seem to breed both a sense of inferiority and a sense of resentment AND to prevent social mobility.

      So, what if we calculated SAT scores (or whatever tests) not on an absolute scale but in standard deviations above or below that school’s average? Getting a 1,000 at Trailer Park Memorial HS could be better than getting a 1,300 at Silver Spoon High.

      The cool part about this is how the tiger moms would react. Since young Petunia MUST attend Harvard, mother is likely to enroll Petunia at Trailer Park Memorial where she can be expected to crush her classmates. The happy results being that all the trailer park kids get to see how the other half lives, get to see how to compete against the rich kids and, failing that, at least get to see up close and personal why they have a lower place in the hierarchy. Further, Petunia and her ilk have to come face to face with the ways people actually live. This seems like a goid way to build empathy and a common touch.

  3. Interesting points to consider. Are poor white natives really competing for the same jobs that immigrants tend to go for? So far I’ve only heard anecdotal evidence on both sides.

    But I’ll go ahead and answer your question—we should do what we can for both the immigrants and the native poor. It’s too sticky a situation to say that one group’s interests materially conflict with the other’s in such a way that we would have to choose to support one over the other…or at least I would need evidence for that.

    Although, truth be told, I have my biases on the side of immigrants, and not just because I’m the daughter of one.

    Speaking of anecdotal evidence, there’s that book you mentioned, Hillbilly Elegy, in which Vance says that the people he knew growing up were not capable of holding down minimum wage jobs. He implies that they just don’t have a good work ethic, which comes from some cultural aspect of their upbringing, perhaps a sense of fear or shame about their place in society. I don’t know if he’s right, but if he is, the problem isn’t simply that immigrants are competing for the same jobs (if they are). There’s a cultural aspect to “hillbilly” society that just isn’t getting addressed. He didn’t have a knock-down solution to the problem, but he does mention the benefits of mentoring programs. These could, at least in theory, open the world up to people who otherwise would only see their own destitution, as well as the thinking that led to this lifestyle. Those kids could benefit from having a responsible adult around to provide guidance. Plus, addiction recovery programs could be improved. It’s only a partial solution, if it’s a solution at all, but at least it seems to strike at the heart of the problem rather than just throw money at it.

    As for assimilation, I don’t know how I feel about that. I get ticked off when people tell immigrants to speak English, and then they take a trip to Paris and demand French-speaking people to speak English. The whole matter of language strikes me as a useless power play. I see nothing wrong with having a multilingual culture, and in fact I see it as a benefit. The real problem comes from ideological incompatibility, and as far as I can tell, the instances in which immigrants bring with them such ideologies are fairly rare. Sharia law just isn’t gonna fly in America, but I’m certainly not worried about it infiltrating our culture. I doubt people come to America with the idea that they will do all that they can to avoid assimilation. I think people find networks of people already here and they get comfortable. It has nothing to do with not wanting to assimilate.

    1. Hey Tina,

      You make some excellent points. As far as I can tell, poor natives and immigrants don’t really compete for jobs. All the information I can find shows the income impact of immigrants on poor natives as absolutely tiny – sometimes a tiny advantage, sometimes a tiny disadvantage.

      However, I don’t think the economic part of the equation really matters to the blue collar anti-immigrant folks. Instead, I strongly suspect it’s really social status. Simply by being English/American/Japanese, you are almost automatically socially superior to someone who is Polish/Mexican/Vietnamese. When you admit immigrants, that inevitable superiority vanishes. It’s like inviting a bunch of NBA players into your city league – your place on the pecking order is going to fall.

      As for the stuff about Sharia and foreign cultures – I think you’re correct in the case of the US. The reason is that the US is very efficient at integrating outsiders. However, not all countries are as efficient as the US. The French, for example, absolutely suck at it and as such their generations of unassimilated immigrants legitimately do cause problems.

      I also agree with you about the motives of most immigrants. However, I wonder if you think refugees would have the same motives.

      Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  4. Sorry it’s taken so long to respond. To answer your question, I’m not sure that refugees would have the same motives. I suppose it depends on the particular circumstances.

    1. No worries. 🙂

      I tend to think that refugees would be a lot closer to a random slice while people who intentionally immigrate would not. Makes me think I need to investigate how people react to refugee waves …

      Slightly off topic, but I’m almost finished with a really good book right now – “The Storm Before the Storm” by Mike Duncan. It’s about the political crisis in the Roman Republic in the generation or two before Cicero/Caesar/Pompey/Crassus.

      One of the biggest crisis they couldn’t figure out? What to do with the non-Roman Italians immigrating into the capital.

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