The Land where the Statues Walked

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Early on Easter morning, 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen spied land in the distance and set his sails for the tiny island. His men grew puzzled and anxious as they neared the coast, for they could see giants lining the shore. But as they drew nearer they realized that these sentries were not moving; the giants were stone statues. Roggeveen and his men were probably the first Europeans ever to see the stunning monoliths. They called the place Easter Island. The residents call it Rapa Nui. It is a tiny dot in the ocean, barely fourteen miles long and seven miles wide, over 2,000 miles from the coast of Chile and 1,300 miles from Pitcairn Island, its nearest neighbor. Pitcairn Island is sometimes regarded as the remotest place on earth.

Since that day nearly 300 years ago, the mystique of Easter Island has increased. Why were the statues with the elongated heads and comical expressions carved? How were they transported as many as six miles from a volcanic quarry to their seaside platforms? Who toppled them during the 19th century, and why?

In 1956 Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl sailed to the island on the raft “Kon-Tiki” and encouraged the island’s governor to raise one of the 80-ton statues back to its standing position. Heyerdahl’s book and lectures created a new awareness of the mysterious stone heads, and they began appearing in works as diverse as National Geographic and Bugs Bunny cartoons. It was in this atmosphere that my own lifelong fascination with ancient artifacts began.

Love among the ruins

All my life I have longed to see the mysterious statues on Easter Island. When I was 8 years old, my father was going to college and majoring in history. One day I stayed home from school with a stomach ache, and he couldn’t miss class, so he took me with him. The course was about ancient civilizations. The professor showed pictures of Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, and the giant statues, called moai, of Easter Island. I was hooked for life. I asked more questions than anyone else in the class that day, and afterward the professor told my father that I was a prodigy. I didn’t know what that meant, but I could tell it was something good.

Since then I have had the opportunity to visit the ruins of ancient temples in Greece, Rome, and Central America. I have stood in the theaters where Paul taught the Ephesians and Corinthians and where Oedipus Rex was first performed. I visited Stonehenge when people were still allowed to touch the stones. I’ve been to Machu Picchu and Tikal and Chichén Itzá and the Great Pyramids of Egypt. But Easter Island eluded me. Three times I came as close as Santiago, Chile, but flights to the island were so infrequent that I was never able to travel the final 2,300 miles and make it to the island.

Until now. When my daughter Hayley’s tour with Disney on Ice ended up in Chile with a week off between shows, she decided to visit Easter Island. No way was she going to get there before I did! So thanks to my adventuresome daughter, I finally visited the moai of Rapa Nui.

What an indescribable thrill! It was, as Hayley said several times, the best vacation ever. We knew we would see statues; we had no idea that we would explore caves, swim in tide pools, watch gigantic ice-blue waves crash against the rocks, climb mountains of lava, or ride four-wheelers around the entire island. It was magical. Simply magical. Even sacred in a way. Every hour we said, “If this was all we did, it would be enough.” And then we did more.

It was drizzling rain when we landed at Rapa Nui. The season was winter, after all, so I had prepared for the Antarctic winds that, as the guide books said, often flow through. But our weather app was predicting temps in the high 60s or even low 70s. Could we be so fortunate?

We found our lodgings through airbnb.com, an organization that matches travelers with local residents who are willing to sublet their homes to short-term visitors. My family has used this site to rent houses and apartments all over the world, always with satisfactory results. We have stayed in a rustic log cabin in North Carolina, a sleek modern apartment in Madrid, and a modest but quaint home in Dublin, to name a few.

Alvaro, our host, gave us a quick tour around the town before taking us to our hotel, a small bungalow-style facility right in the middle of Main Street. The center courtyard was surrounded by palm trees and hibiscus bushes, and Alvaro spread his map on the table there to show us where he would be taking us. We shared a kitchenette with other residents and met in the courtyard for breakfast. It was a very relaxed, cozy place to stay.

The town is beyond rustic — the road in front of the tiny government house isn't even paved! We never saw a large shopping center, or even a grocery store that was larger than a 7-11. They don't have a movie theater on the island. But the restaurants were outstanding. After a quick lunch of freshly made empanadas at a restaurant half a block away from Alvaro's place (it was hard to call it a "hotel"), we joined a small tour of seven people, including four Disney on Ice skaters. Alvaro recognized our venturesome spirit and took us to many of his favorite family beaches and caves, off the beaten path (not that there are many beaten paths on Rapa Nui). He also arranged our schedule so that we avoided the early-morning bus tours.

Alvaro grew up on Rapa Nui and is a direct descendant of King Jean I, who invaded the island in the 19th century and made himself king. His grandfather was the mayor of Rapa Nui when Heyerdahl arrived in the mid-1950s; he oversaw the raising of the first moai in modern times. Alvaro knows his history and loves the island. We loved his enthusiastic hospitality.

Off the beaten path

Since it was drizzling that day, Alvaro first took us to visit some caves. The island was created by a volcanic eruption, and it is a veritable Swiss cheese of lava tubes, many of them extending more than a mile. It was not unusual for people to live in these caves. Alvaro told us that his grandmother hid in a cave for two months when she was young because she didn’t want to consummate her arranged marriage. Eventually she went back to her husband, but he understood that she did not love him. Later she fell in love with Alvaro’s grandfather and lived with him the rest of her life (Catholics don’t divorce, so they lived in sin . . .)

We knew we would see statues; we had no idea that we would explore caves, swim in tide pools, watch gigantic ice-blue waves crash against the rocks, climb mountains of lava, or ride four-wheelers around the entire island.

Alvaro had discovered one such cave just a week or so earlier, when he noticed the top of a tree at ground level and realized that the trunk had to be growing out of a cave. He was anxious to explore it further, and we were just the group to accompany him. We climbed down to the entrance and ducked inside. There we followed the tunnel as far as we could, grateful for the helmets and flashlights Alvaro provided. We explored a side tunnel as far as it led us, crouching down as it became more and more shallow. It dropped off at the end, so several of us shinnied down to see what was there, using a thick tree root as a rope to ease ourselves down and pull ourselves back up. Then we went back to a larger cave near the road, where a few other tourists were milling around at the entrance, getting ready to leave. Once again we explored to the very end of the tunnel, and had to climb out through a hole in the ceiling! What an adventure — and we hadn’t even visited the moai yet.

The moai average 40 feet in height and 80 tons in weight. Earth and sand have built up over the years, making it appear that they are merely heads. But most of them have torsos that extend to the thighs, and a few of them are full bodied. Their arms hang at their sides, with their hands held neatly over their abdomens. The bodies are carved from the yellowish stone of Rana Raraku, located at the bulbous northern tip of the island.

Most of the statues wear cylindrical topknots of contrasting red lava. These hats, called "pukau," weigh as much as 12 tons each, so it was quite a feat to move them to the statues and lift them to the top of the heads. Alvaro told us that they represent the bun that many Rapa Nui men still wear high on their heads (although I had to wonder which came first, the stone hat or the men's hair bun). These pukau were made at Puna Pau, a red-lava quarry in the center of the island, 12 kilometers from the sulphur-rich quarry where the bodies of the statues were made. Several top knots dot the hillside at Puna Pau, and dozens of statues are found lying in transit across the island, indicating that something dramatic happened to end the statue-making suddenly. No one knows exactly what it was.

Near Puna Pau is Ahu Akivi, the site of the seven moai that face the sea. All others face inward, standing on burial platforms called ahu. The statues represented the deceased leaders of tribal families — so much for my theory that they were supposed to scare away intruders by appearing to be giant soldiers. Alvaro told us that these sea-facing statues at Ahu Akivi, known as the Seven Explorers, represent the seven original men to arrive on Rapa Nui from Polynesia. Another feature that sets this group apart from the rest of the moai is the absence of skeletons found under the ahu, indicating that this is a memorial, not a mausoleum. The third and most remarkable feature of this ahu is that it marks the summer solstice, December 21, when the statues face the sunset straight on instead of at an angle.

Back in town we watched the sun set, and then had dinner at Te Moana, where the meals were so beautifully presented that we took pictures. Banana leaves lined the plates, and exotic flowers decorated them. The food was delicious and elegant, the best teriyaki chicken and grilled pineapple we’ve ever eaten. This quality of food was an unexpected delight on a rustic island, where we didn’t even have hot water for our showers.

We were in bed and asleep by 10 pm, so thrilled to be on this enchanting island and so delighted by the day’s surprises. It was sort of like camping out, as there was no heat in the room, and no hot water, despite the fact that it was probably 40 degrees outside. We shivered under our single blankets. I got up during the night to put on a long sleeved shirt and spread my ski jacket over my bed. Roosters woke us at 5:30 am, but it was so dark that I didn’t get up until almost 9. Then I hurried to shower. The tepid water made me shiver, but the air was so much colder that I didn’t want to leave the shower once I got wet. As I put on my watch I realized that I was two hours early — my phone hadn’t adjusted to the new time zone. We all laughed about it. It was part of the adventure. And it gave us more time for exploring the shoreline before going on the tour.

High winds had blown away the clouds, giving us clear blue skies for our visit to Rapa Nui National Park, the site of the main quarry and the largest number of extant moai. Alvaro recommended that we start our full day tour at 10:30, so we would avoid the tour-bus crowds. Bus tours normally begin at 9, so by the time we reached each spot, they were already gone. The later start gave us time Saturday morning to walk down to the shore, climb around on the rocks, and watch the waves spew foam into the tide pools. We could see surfers in the distance preparing to ride the waves. As we headed back to the hotel for the tour we all agreed: Even if we didn’t have the statues to see, this would still be the best vacation ever.

But we did have statues to see — and I had waited 50 years to see them. Yet this was such a last-minute trip that I was virtually unprepared. I was kicking myself for not at least buying a travel guide. Fifty years to get here, and I had no idea what I wanted or needed to see.

As it turned out, however, that was the perfect way to visit this island. Every moment was unexpected. Every hour brought another surprising discovery. I didn’t have a clear picture in my mind of what I would be seeing, so it was all brand new. And Alvaro was the perfect host. He fed off our enthusiasm and shared aspects of his island as though we were friends, even taking us to his family’s favorite camping and picnicking sites. When he took us to a small cave where his family used to camp out when he was a kid, I asked whether they still go here. He shrugged his shoulders and said they don’t because the privacy is gone. “You never know when a tourist might show up.” He said it matter-of-factly, without any tinge of animosity. This was the attitude we encountered throughout our stay. It was welcoming and refreshing.

The statues represented the deceased leaders of tribal families — so much for my theory that they were supposed to scare away intruders by appearing to be giant soldiers.

As we caught sight of the ocean in the distance, with its deep blue water and massive ice blue waves, one of the Disney skaters asked, “Can we stop and take a picture?” Alvaro was pleased to comply, but I’m sure he was thinking, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Our first real stop was the Blow Hole, where powerful waves spew a geyser of steam-like water through a fissure in the rocks. Of course, Hayley and her friend Taylor climbed down to the blow hole so I could take pictures as water roiled around them. We could see the remains of broken moai nearby. These remnants cover this island. You see them everywhere, once you know how to spot them.

Further up the coast we visited an ahu where the toppled moai have not been re-erected. Most of the moai were knocked down during tribal wars several centuries ago, and it is very expensive to repair and lift them. It costs about $10 million to restore an ahu, so most of the restorations have been conducted by organizations from other countries, especially universities and archeological teams. The most photographed set of moai was restored by a Japanese crane company in the mid-1990s. What a great advertising gimmick, to show their cranes lifting these 80-ton monoliths! And what a boon for the island to see the moai watching over the islanders again.

But still, I had not yet seen a standing statue from the classical period — not with my own eyes. Alvaro pointed out a large moai face down on the dune several yards from the ahu platform near the beach. He showed us that the eye sockets were incomplete, indicating that this statue had been interrupted in transit. It wasn’t knocked down during the tribal wars; it was never erected. How sad to think that the ancient craftsmen had spent a year carefully carving the statue from the mountainside, and then weeks more, painstakingly moving it from the quarry to the sea, only to have it topple over, a few yards from its ahu. A parade of other unerected moai with unfinished eye sockets told the same tale.

Alvaro took us to another favorite family spot and suggested that we have our lunch there. It was a delightful tide pool with a shallow waterfall created by the waves. Taylor immediately took off climbing, and soon he and Hayley were in the water. Fortunately two of the other skaters told us to bring a lunch, because there was no place to buy food outside the town, and Alvaro failed to mention it to us. We lunched on delicious turkey and cheese sandwiches on rolls baked fresh that morning. Sandwiches always taste better at a picnic, especially after a day of exploring!

Meeting the moai

But finally it was time to see the real thing: we were about to visit the quarry where hundreds of moai still dot the mountain.

As we came around a curve, there it all was, breathtaking — the blue sky, the green grass, and the dark stone faces emerging from the ground. Alvaro pointed out the unfinished statues still in the side of the quarry, waiting all these years to be released. One is the largest known statue on the island, 70 feet tall, like an Egyptian soldier guarding the entrance to a royal pyramid. I was trembling with excitement as we drove up to the national park, where we would finally walk among the statues.

But yes — we were roped off. We had to stay on the path. This was a development I had anticipated. If I had come here 15 years ago, when I first visited Santiago, I would have been able to touch the statues and stand right next to them. Or stand right on them, as many people did back then. But I don’t mind. They need to be protected, and the paths have been strategically placed for effective photo opportunities, with the added benefit that no else is going to be in the pictures. Nice!

We enjoyed a leisurely hike around the statues, pausing to take photos and imagine the history. Alvaro knew that I had the most intense interest in the island, so he loved telling me about every “surprise” around the corner. He never rushed us. His theory is that the statues in the quarry were used as samples. Various craftsmen displayed their work, and local people would then select the style and size they wanted to use as the memorial for a family burial platform, rather like selecting a grave marker today. In fact, an archeologist recently discovered three statues with an artist’s signature, suggesting that each craftsman had a specific part of the quarry from which to work.

This is also the only place where full-bodied statues are found, although the bodies are buried waist deep in the earth (probably to keep them standing up straight). Archeologists have unearthed them to study them, but then they cover them back up to maintain their historic integrity. Consequently, the bodies are in pristine shape and their markings are clear, because they have never been exposed to the wind, sand, and rain erosion that punishes the rest of the statues.

As we left the park I took one last look at the enigmatic heads, so alike and yet with personalities all their own. Hayley and I especially liked the guy whose head was tilted at a rakish angle. I never felt rushed, yet I couldn’t get enough. I want more pictures! I want to go back.

We experienced a few gnarly moments in the mud from the previous days’ rains, but we finally made it to drier ground. And then we were driving right toward those 15 moai raised by the Japanese crane company, all different heights and personalities, with the bright blue sea behind them as a perfect contrast to their dark stone and the green field in front of them. Simply gorgeous. “I’m in heaven!” I blurted to everyone in the van. Alvaro let us out to explore and take pictures on our own. Behind the platform we found a collection of smaller statues, some with bodies and some just heads, almost like babies gathered in a circle. Why were they there? Like so much else on the island, that is a mystery.

Our final stop of the day was a beautiful sandy beach, the only one we saw on the island. Every other shore was protected by foreboding lava rock. This is where Thor Heyerdahl arrived in 1955, and where Alvaro’s grandfather supervised the raising of the first statue in modern times in 1956. Alvaro told us the sad story of the day the statue’s unveiling was celebrated. A group of school children came to the celebration, and the teacher asked Heyerdahl if he could take the students out on the boat. The boat capsized, trapping one girl underneath it, and trapping the teacher under a pile of panicked students, all clinging to him to keep from drowning. The girl and the teacher drowned. She was Alvaro’s 14-year-old aunt, his grandfather’s own daughter. The grandfather was so distraught that he left the island and did not return for over 20 years. Alvaro’s grandmother went with him, leaving Alvaro’s 16-year-old father to take care of his younger siblings. So sad! His grandfather felt responsible for the tragedy. He regretted restoring the statue.

On a happier note, five additional moai were discovered under the sand and are now restored to their platform. The sand protected them from erosion, and they are beautiful, with most of their markings (ears, belts, hands, back decorations) still intact and clearly visible. I took off my shoes and rolled up my pants to walk in the sand. Nearby stands that first statue Alvaro’s grandfather raised, looking like a giant eroded blob compared to these well-preserved statues that had been entombed in the sand for centuries.

Exploring the island off-road

Greatest idea Hayley had all weekend: let's rent scooters. Greatest contribution from Taylor: let's make it four-wheelers instead. What a perfect way to experience Rapa Nui! We could strap our backpacks to the front of the motorbikes, and the sturdy machines could bounce over the potholes with ease. We didn't have to lean to turn, which made it so much safer. And we could stop wherever and whenever we wanted. It was still a little drizzly and gray as we began the morning, but that was the end of our sketchy weather. The clouds blew away, the sun came out, and we had a glorious day of off-road exploring as we retraced our steps from the tour, but took our time to hike, swim, and simply soak in the gorgeous scenery

Most of Easter Island is uninhabited wilderness. In the mid-19th century, Peruvian slave traders kidnapped many of the islanders to work in the mines on the mainland, leaving their European diseases behind as an unfair exchange. As a result, by 1872 only 111 native Rapa Nuians remained. The island was controlled by European sheep ranchers, and led by self-proclaimed King Jean I, who married a local princess (Alvaro’s great-grandmother) to strengthen his authority. The native population was forced to live behind barbed-wire fences on the southeast corner of the island. The government policy of moving all the people to one end of the island, terrible though it was at the time, inadvertently protected the island’s pristine features.

Today, everyone lives in four little towns, located side by side near the airport. There are a few isolated farmhouses and one rustic but high-priced hotel — The Explorer, $1300 a night; David Letterman and his children were there the week before us. Outside of that, it is completely barren and primordial. Horses, cows, dogs, and chickens roam wild across the fields. Broken moai dot the coastline as they have for centuries. Even after the Rapa Nuians gained independence from the Europeans and became Chilean citizens, they remained congregated in the same area; the rest of the island is virtually undeveloped. Fearful of outsiders, they have limited land ownership to native Rapa Nuians, which has prevented commercial development and chain hotels.

The native population was forced to live behind barbed-wire fences on the southeast corner of the island. The government policy of moving all the people to one end of the island, terrible though it was at the time, inadvertently protected the island’s pristine features.

This makes Easter Island an ideal place for off-road exploring, and we took full advantage. Before long we were climbing lava formations and discovering new tide pools, watching the waves, and having a great time. At our first stop I suddenly remembered that we left our helmets and Taylor's backpack on the four-wheelers. But it was fine — unlike the other South American countries we've visited, where crime is rampant, Rapa Nui is safe and virtually crime-free.

We ate our lunch on a lava outcropping above a wild and windy coastline. The waves were so tall that a couple of times we had that rollercoaster sensation of impending disaster. We thought about what it would be like to see a tsunami coming, and almost ran to higher ground a couple of times, even though we were probably 25 feet above the water and at least 100 yards away from it. But it was such a beautiful sight, with the light aqua water in the waves, the white roiling foam, the deep blue ocean against the dark lava. It was so nice to relax and enjoy the view without worrying about time and tour guides.

We stopped near the blow hole to watch surfers in the distance being dropped into the waves by a jet ski. It would be deadly to surf all the way to the shore and get smashed against the rocks, but in the distance they can surf the waves and then drop into the water again behind the next wave. We rode past the ahu with the fallen statues near Alvaro's family cave, and the large abandoned moai, until we finally reached the tide pool. No one was there, so we stripped into our skivvies and swam in the pool until a huge wave flooded it and nearly dashed us against the rocks. Then we continued our ride. If there was a path, we followed it, and found gorgeous views as a result. At one point we ended up high in the hills near cows, cliffs, and a pile of bones that was once a horse. We could see the hoofs and even the hair on its legs — it must have been a fairly recent kill. We don't know how it died, but all the bones were piled in a circle. Some kind of ritualistic sacrifice? Or maybe it simply broke its leg and couldn't go on. We saw so many piles of animal bones on the island that "there's another bag of bones" became a running joke.

We were completely alone for most of the day, except when we stopped again at the 15 moai restored by the Japanese, where we took some fun photos of ourselves jumping in front of the statues and pretending to hold them up. I was happy to get another view of them, and I kept looking back as we left, thinking, "One last look. One last look."

Not a single person joined us. We explored on our own. Everything we saw was a delight.

Storytelling under the stars

After a late dinner we hopped back on our ATVs and headed for Puna Pau in the interior of the island, the place where the red topknots had been quarried. There would be no light pollution so far away from town, and we would be able to see the stars. I was at the back of our little caravan. Every once in a while I would look behind me, and it was pitch dark. I wasn't scared, but I was a little nervous, and I knew that I could work myself up into real fear if I let myself start imagining things. Taylor was also spooked, so when we stopped the bikes we both ended up turning them around, to be ready for a quick getaway . . .

Nevertheless, we put our blankets out on the grass and lay down to gaze at the stars. They were brilliantly bright, of many different sizes — you don’t see that in the places where most people live. And so densely packed! The Milky Way was fully visible, but of course the constellations were completely different from any we see in the northern hemisphere. I told some stories about constellations — the myths of Deer Hunter and White Corn Maiden, Orpheus and Eurydice, and others. We saw shooting stars, including one that was huge — like a dove flying across the sky. We were shivering with the cold, but we warmed up under our blankets. It was peaceful and beautiful, and we all had the sense of seeing something we would never see again.

It was late when we returned to the hotel, but we decided to get up early and explore just a little more before turning the bikes in at 9. So we settled our bill with Alvaro and told him it was worth the cold showers to be able to stay at his B and B. Chagrined by our report, he walked to the back of our cottage and changed the propane tank. Then we enjoyed our first hot showers of the week.

At 7:30 we were up, showered, and on our ATVs, heading north on the east side of town, to see what we had missed. Just outside of town we spied a spectacular set of moai, along with petroglyphs, "mana vai" where the early islanders created rock enclosures to protect their crops from the wind, and the remains of Rapa Nui’s ancient boat-shaped houses. I knew that thousands of people had seen these moai before me, but there was still something extra special about them. I had found them for myself, and no one was there but just we three. Horses came thundering across the field, chased by wild dogs, and one of the horses nearly lost its footing and almost fell into the sea. There was a playfulness in their chase, however; the dogs weren't really trying to catch the horses, and the animals seemed to be enjoying the morning as much as we were.

It was magical. I loved it, loved it, loved it. Although we could see another moai far in the distance, up the coast, we didn't know how to get there, and we were running out of time. So with one last backward look we headed back to town to turn in our mechanical steeds. Then we grabbed some towels and headed back to the cliffs, walking this time. The sun was warm; the wind had died down. Our last experience on the island was relaxing in the ocean’s crystal pool. Then three quick showers, three quick empanadas, and 3,000 pesos (for the taxi), and we were back at the airport, saying goodbye to this enticing island and its enigmatic folklore.

They walked

Why did ancient Polynesian craftsmen create these monolithic statues on this tiny dot in the ocean, but nowhere else? How did they transport the 80-ton sculptures from the quarries to the coastlines? What caused them to stop erecting them so suddenly that many of the statues lie along the paths, abandoned in their tracks? What virtually destroyed the island population?

Many archeologists, environmentalists, and social scientists have used Easter Island as an example of how human folly leads to self-destruction. They suggest that the islanders cut down the forests to transport giant statues to appease their gods. When the resulting deforestation destroyed the natural plant and animal life, they were unable to feed themselves. Hunger led to tribal warfare, and the natives basically killed themselves off, all because of their religion. Nasty humans. We ruin everything.

It was peaceful and beautiful, and we all had the sense of seeing something we would never see again.

But more recent archeologists have discovered a different story. As our friend Alvaro tells us, "It was the rats!" European ships brought rats along with their cargo, and those rats loved the taste of the palm seeds on the island. A close examination of ancient seed shells reveals the scratching of rats' teeth as they gnawed through the shells to get at the sweet pulp of the seeds. No seeds, no trees. Between the rats and germs the Europeans brought to the island, and their enslavement of the native population, which they took away from the island to work in the mines of Peru, it was the European outsiders, not the native people, who destroyed the ecosystem.

Moreover, a recent experiment by a team of archeologists (Terry Hunt, Carl Lipo, Sergio Rapu Haoa, and Patrick Kirch) has pretty much debunked the theory that the statues were moved on their backs along rolling platforms made from the trunks of trees. Local folklore always maintained that the statues "walked" from the quarry to the ahus, and local folklore usually contains a kernel of truth. (That's how Heinrich Schliemann discovered the city of Troy.) Noting that the fallen moai were fatter and had a different center of gravity from the completed moai standing on their final platforms, they came up with a theory that the islanders slung ropes around the eye sockets and shoulders and then used gravity and the statues’ own sloping shape to rock the objects forward, in much the same way that I have tipped a heavy bureau from side to side in order to rock it gently from one part of a room to another. PBS recently aired a documentary of their experiment using a life-sized, 80-ton replica. Watching it finally "walk" down the path was a magical moment for me. (The documentary, "Nova: Mystery of Easter Island," is available at Amazon.com.)

In essence, through modern technology, the statues had come to life. They could speak to us again, and in so doing, they could defend the islanders who had been maligned for centuries. Japanese crane companies and university archeologists lifted them out of the sand. Modern airliners and cruise ships bring a new kind of visitor today — not visitors who want to pillage and plunder, but people with a reverence for things ancient and a willingness to travel thousands of miles on a pilgrimage to consider the past.

Cultures everywhere create monuments and memorials to their dead. Often they turn to these memorials in times of trouble, seeking the help of their departed ancestors. This almost universal tendency indicates a profound belief, or at least a hope, that there is another existence after this one — that the spirits of the ancestors live on. Easter, with its focus on resurrection and new life, is a perfect time to reflect on the mysteries of Easter Island, and to resurrect the wonder and magic of youthful curiosity. I like to think of those Seven Explorers, facing the sea for century after century and patiently waiting for the sun to set at each year’s summer solstice, even as I wait for the sun to rise on Easter morning as a symbol of the Son who also rises.

History. Mythology. Culture. They reveal the dimensions of our humanity. We are drawn to explore what is different, but end up learning what we have in common with other civilizations.




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A Program that Any Drunk Can Understand

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Libertarianism enjoys the contributions of many pioneers, several of whom spring immediately to mind. There’s H.L. Mencken, to whom I recently paid homage in these pages. There’s Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and, of course, Ayn Rand. There are others I’ve neglected to mention here, but of whom readers may remind me. And there are Bill W. and Doctor Bob.

At my mention of the last two, some may scratch their heads. They may search their anthologies of political works, trying to find some mention of these eminent persons. When they come up short, they may conclude that I am kidding. But though Bill W. and Doctor Bob are better known in Twelve-Step recovery circles than in libertarian ones, and though neither may ever have considered himself a libertarian, together they formulated a philosophy that, in many ways, bears a striking similarity to the political convictions we hold dear. They were the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Of all political persuasions, libertarianism most nearly conforms to the principles of A.A. Both are clear and simple enough for any drunk to understand. Both adhere to guidelines everybody learned in kindergarten. And if most people hadn’t forgotten those guidelines by the time they graduated from high school, we would all live in a much better world.

We are not run by any elites who are presumed to know better than we do. Our leadership always emerges from the bottom up, and is guided not by airy theories but by practical experience.

How close is A.A. to libertarian principles? Strikingly close. We Twelve-Steppers believe in taking responsibility for ourselves. We believe, as we like to say, in “keeping our side of the street clean.” In seeking out solutions to our problems ourselves, instead of sitting around waiting for somebody else to do it for us.

Helping other people is also not something we’re encouraged to sit around and wait for somebody else to do. When we’re able, we’re supposed to pitch in and do it ourselves. No faraway potentate is seen as our ultimate benefactor. No potentate, that is, except our own, individually identified Higher Power — a Power that never takes a dime from us in taxes, yet provides far greater assistance than we’ve ever gotten from Washington D.C., for all the trillions we’ve sent it.

Just as in an economy based on liberty, an “invisible hand” can truly be said to govern the workings of Twelve-Step programs. Nobody needs to plan, organize, or dictate matters from the top, from the heights of any centralized organization. We are not run by any elites who are presumed to know better than we do. Our leadership always emerges from the bottom up, and is guided not by airy theories but by practical experience.

Busybodies and know-it-alls gain no traction in A.A. None has ever succeeded in taking charge. To outside eyes, this seems nothing short of miraculous. It may also seem miraculous that a ragtag assortment of freedom-loving citizens were ever able to govern themselves in a country without kings, emperors, or any sort of grand council to oversee operations down to the minutest detail.

In A.A., we hold each other individually accountable. And every individual counts. The dignity of each person’s choices is honored, whether for good or ill. In recovery, we come to appreciate that our lives have a value no one else can ever take away, and that — for the sake of our very survival — we must never throw away ourselves. Though I was well on my journey toward a libertarian perspective years before I became involved in A.A., my experience in the program had much to do with clinching my political conversion.

Over the past three-quarters of a century, millions of people’s lives have been saved by their adherence to the principles of Twelve-Step recovery. Those lives bear testimony to the fact that the principles work. If they work to save human lives, they might also help to save the larger human society.

When recovering drunks run across people who labor without the benefit of such help, those who are apparently clean and sober but who are whiny, self-absorbed, irresponsible, childish, over-dependent, nosy, meddlesome, or just plain impossible to get along with, we often remark that they “need a program.” We say this with a smile, but we are serious. We count ourselves fortunate that we have found a way of life that makes our individual lives worth living, and actually feel sorry for those who haven’t. More than ever before, today, Americans need a program. Be they drunk or sober, and regardless of whether they use recreational drugs, a huge number of them direly need to be Twelve-Stepped.

As a nation, many Americans are addicted to the hallucinogen of government aid. They grope their way through their existence under the delusion that, although they’re doing a lousy job of managing their own lives, they have the wisdom to manage everyone else’s. They may not believe that their Higher Power resides a bottle or a syringe, but they just as mistakenly believe that it resides in the state. This, as surely as alcoholism or drug addiction, is a disease that leads to disappointment, despair, and destruction. As we in A.A are also fond of saying, they “need a meeting.”

The next meeting of our local Libertarian Party, or of any similar group of liberty-loving individuals, would very nicely fit the bill.




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Confessions from China II

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I just had lunch at the local food court in Guangzhou, a city of 1.3 million people in southern China. The price of the regular meal was 25 Yuan. I did not want rice, so they politely returned 10 Yuan, despite the fact that I didn’t ask for it. My meal cost me about $2.25. This is my sixth visit to China over the past three years; each one has been for about a month. I have traveled to many cities. While I have not been to many rural places, I have travelled enough to have my own views on China.

My experience of the food vendor returning me 10 Yuan no longer surprises me. I cannot think of a time when I have been cheated in China. I speak no Chinese. When I am stuck at restaurants, I am often offered eager translation help by other guests. Success in business is evidently exerting a strong influence, making people civil, honest, and compassionate.

I indulge in haggling at local shops and manage to pay what a regular Chinese would. Were I not to haggle, I would leave the shopkeeper dissatisfied. Taxis seldom overcharge me. When a shop is open, the well-dressed shop-assistant comes to me to get my business. She smiles and greets me. If her shop isn’t open, she ignores me and sometimes waves me off, a bit rudely.

People in many parts of the world refuse to acknowledge the rapid progress of China, because they see it as a communist country. Libertarians and those with free-market inclinations are particularly prone to this. They don’t want to accept the idea that an officially communist country has achieved human progress at a combined scale and rate that is unprecedented. But ignoring something does not change the reality.

Although China is a dictatorship of the “Communist Party,” that does not make it economically communist. No, China is not a democracy. People have a habit of imagining “democracy” as synonymous with “freedom,” but these are totally separate concepts. “Democracy” is a form of government, and government is by definition anti-freedom. “Freedom” is a word that applies to what is allowed by the institutions and culture of a country.

Libertarians and those with free-market inclinations don’t want to accept the idea that an officially communist country has achieved human progress at a combined scale and rate that is unprecedented.

I actually find myself very free in China. You can drink openly in public (as you can in most of Asia). You can trade, and even scam people, right in front of the police, who are not trained to be busybodies. In many places cute girls approach you with scams, offering to take you to bars. They talk openly within hearing distance of the police. In major cities, there is a rampant market in fake diplomas or ID cards. At night, I often saw several business cards shoved under the door of my hotel room, offering the service of an evening rendezvous.

Chinese traders always seem to say, “Yes, I have what you want. Now, tell me: what do you want?”

There has been much talk about the X-ray machines that check your bags at Chinese subways and at the entrance to Tiananmen Square. In my experience, the authorities are never serious about checking your bags.

“But you can’t protest against the government in China.” There are hundreds of thousands of recorded protests every year in China. You ought to see the Chinese protesting. I have seen them hurling abuse at policemen, shouting and screaming, throwing their arms and legs around. Yes, they can’t make a democratic change in China. But in Canada, my vote — one among millions of other votes — wasn’t worth spare change. In my view, “democracy” is a farce at best. It has a strong tendency to degenerate into the dictatorship of the masses. Compared with that, Chinese protest is real. People who protest in Canada mostly lobby for government favors — they protest to steal from me. And people like me are always on the sidelines, refusing to make jackasses of themselves, worried about any inconvenience their protests might cause to others.

Every time I deal with a bureaucrat in China, I am offered the chance to participate in a quick electronic assessment of his performance: Was he courteous and efficient? Where else in the world are you asked to evaluate a public servant? When I don’t care to participate in the survey, I often see the hand of the bureaucrat himself coming out of the window to do the assessment on my behalf — ironic proof that the surveys have real value.

Having been in Guangzhou for a week, I have seen virtually no foreign tourists. Yet downtown Guangzhou is among the most modern cities I know. Its skyline competes with the very best in Hong Kong, New York, and Singapore. Yet a closer inspection of those modern buildings shows that a lot of them are partially or fully empty. And the quality of buildings falls off rapidly once you are outside the downtown area. BMWs and Audis parked outside the grim apartment buildings in the outskirts show how important the public face is for many Chinese. The hazy air, the expensive shops, where rich people likely won’t shop unless they overpay, and the massive Pearl River, which for all practical purposes is the main sewage and industrial-waste artery, all remind me that I am in China.

Chinese women have probably shed their clothes faster than any other women in history, so much so that during my initial visits I thought more than once of asking them if they had forgotten something. Yet ugly buildings are often hidden behind massive posters or some other kind of façade. Packaging is more important than substance in China. The well-dressed people on the streets often share a room with several others — no air-conditioning, and the bathing facility in an adjoining building, with hot water carefully rationed.

The ultra-modern subway systems and extremely modern buildings calibrate people’s thinking, leading them to assess China as if it were a fully modern economy. Alas, China is still a developing economy, which can best be judged by comparison with where it was (a mere) two decades ago.

There is much talk about increasing nationalism in China, yet it is hard to believe that a society that had grown as fast as China would not at the same time grow nationalistic. A local acquaintance tells me that a mere 15 years back there were cows roaming the streets of what is now the modern city of Guangzhou. You can see how Guangzhou changed over the last few decades using the time-function on Google Earth.

This is a society that thinks in herds, and I have had neither the occasion nor the courage to discuss these issues in a group.

Was there a lot of pain involved in these sweeping changes in the city? Yes. Of course. The property of poor people was confiscated for little or no compensation. Such people increasingly protest, sometimes with violence against public officials. And property confiscations can be worse in democratic countries, where short-term politicians have incentives to cater to their corrupt connections, fund-providers, and lobbies.

The Chinese do have a visceral anti-Japanese sentiment. They are heavily indoctrinated, through movies and the educational system, to hate Japan. But when I challenge people about their views, I have never seen an individual refuse to engage in a rational discussion. I say “individual,” because this is a society that thinks in herds, and I have had neither the occasion nor the courage to discuss these issues in a group.

The political systems of China, the Koreas, and Japan have been heavily influenced by Confucian culture. In these hierarchical societies, creative thinking doesn’t have much place. Their culture and social systems make people shining cogs in a big machine, the better for them to work diligently and unworryingly in their boring jobs and studies. Even in Vancouver, the library is packed with Chinese students, cramming away from books. Libraries in China are similar.

But one must take a walk to the multi-story bookstores in China. They have scores of self-improvement books, proving that Chinese people increasingly read outside assigned academic works. You see covers showing the faces of Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Dale Carnegie, and Stephen Covey. In a country where illegal copying is believed to be rampant, there must still be considerable profit from legally marketed translations. Could the Chinese be becoming more creative? I have no doubt they are. Even if you look through the lenses of “communism” (with all kinds of fancy connotations) that you might wear in China, you cannot ignore the fact that there are many modern, creative solutions to be found in predominantly Confucian countries.

People are forever comparing China with India. Thirty years ago, when China had a per capita GDP that was lower than India’s, this would have made sense. It no longer does. Today, an average Chinese is three times richer than an average Indian. And strangely, I find India a lot more expensive than China, and a lot less free. India is stagnating. China continues to grow. China wants to make money.

But am I not over-romanticising China? I witnessed an old lady, who was selling fruit at a corner in the small city of Lijiang, being hit hard on her stomach by Chengguan, government goons — a vivid reminder that all is not well. It is very hard to trust the quality of food in China. I love the 30 cent, nicely-cut pineapples, but I do ask myself if they are unnaturally sweetened. Cheap massages, usually for less than $10, are great for me. But what about the people who render those services? What about all the people who live in extremely congested spaces? What about all the people who work in extraordinarily exploitative situations under “greedy” businessmen? What about the sweatshops? What about the ruthless abortion of the second child?

Governments, irrespective of whether they are democracies or single-party dictatorships, are institutions of heartlessness, inhumanity, and freedom from accountability. State and nationhood are unnatural concepts, designed by crooks and sociopaths to control the sheeple. The smaller the state, the fewer the regulations, and the better the society. I am not in a situation to compare China with truly stateless societies, because today’s world offers no examples. But China has very little regulatory control — the biggest reason behind its low costs. And, yes, I do feel for small children living and working under tough situations, or my masseurs who work for a pittance. But I gladly use their services, for the choice they have is not between a good job and a bad job. If they had that option they would have chosen the good job. Their choice is between a bad job and hunger. Trading with them, I get my massage and they get food. China understands this concept well. And that is the only way to move up economically.

China has moved up. Chinese salaries are rising much faster than the nation’s growth rate or inflation rate, meaning that the benefits of continued growth are accruing increasingly to the workers. Workers are fighting for better conditions. People are increasingly resisting work in factories where other people have been used like automatons. In fact, the increasing worry is that as China becomes a more expensive place to operate, some manufacturing is moving back to the West. A lot of clothing factories have already moved to Vietnam and Bangladesh. This is how human conditions improve. Not by increasing demand, in the way that Keynesian Western governments think things happen, but by working hard, by slogging along and creating the supply first. Sweatshops then go away naturally.

Governments, irrespective of whether they are democracies or single-party dictatorships, are institutions of heartlessness, inhumanity, and freedom from accountability.

My guess is that manufacturing that is moving back to the US is not necessarily doing that for economic reasons but to keep Obama happy and possibly to access earmarked money. It would be erroneous to think that China had lost its competitive advantages and that the short-term, democratic Western world had learned anything, for that world continues to do more of what created its current problems. I continue to be bullish about the future in China.

Except in Beijing and Shanghai, I usually pay $10 for a hostel bed or $30 for a three-star hotel. My fabulous hotel in Guangzhou has a price tag of $30, but it does offer some kind of, I think very strange, cup of coffee for $30. Only a nouveau riche Chinese or someone with a company account will pay for this. I of course don’t abuse the latter. A full meal costs $10 or less. The subway, one of the best I have seen anywhere, costs between 50 cents and 75 cents. Unless I fall for the temptation to waste money, I can live a luxurious life here for less than $50 a day.

But China is not only a place for cheap goods. It is a treasure trove for anyone seeking an education in economics. Just be prepared to accept a few Chinese idiosyncrasies. And don’t let the “communist” tag on China stop you from going there.




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What Difference Did Benghazi Make?

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Remember the Benghazi attack, the one against our consulate in Libya, where terrorists murdered our ambassador and three other Americans? Vaguely? It was the debacle that we were told was caused by a silly anti-Islamic video — and led to a series of tedious hearings revealing almost nothing about the trans-attack activities of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Judging by media coverage, all that most people will remember of the hearings was the "What difference, at this point, does it make?” remark by Mrs. Clinton, in her January testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

It was Clinton's indignant rejection of a line of inquiry into the State Department's initial insistence that the attack was a spontaneous response to the silly video. But it represented a political victory for Democrats. Theatric, petulant, at times tearful, always evasive, Mrs. Clinton rebuked her inquisitors while defending her role, and that of President Obama, in the handling of the attack. She deftly accepted responsibility, but not a whit of blame; and shed not a particle of light on anything that she or Mr. Obama might have done to save lives on the night of the attack. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had escaped Benghazi, now a fading tempest in a politicized Republican teapot.

Indeed, what difference did it make? Mr. Obama was reelected in November. Time, and a fawning media, have dissolved public interest in the Benghazi matter. And Mrs. Clinton's testimony was, in no small part, a valedictory for her State Department stint. She departs as one of the country's most popular political figures, and a likely candidate for president in 2016. During her 60 Minutes appearance with Obama, this popularity led her to put what she may have thought would be the final nail in the Benghazi coffin, saying of her critics, "They just will not live in an evidence-based world."

But, only a week later, on February 7, public memory was refreshed with the "evidence-based" testimony (before the Senate Armed Services Committee) of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. We would learn that their participation during the eight-hour tragedy was timid and parochial, that of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton negligent and ignoble; their escape from Benghazi was desertion.

At 5:00 pm on the afternoon of September 11, 2012, Leon Panetta and General Dempsey met with President Obama for a routine 30-minute weekly session. But on this day, Panetta and Dempsey brought news of the Benghazi attack: it had begun about 90 minutes earlier, the lives of more than 30 US citizens were at stake, and the whereabouts of Ambassador Stevens was unknown. They spent a whopping 20 minutes with Obama discussing the situation at the American embassy in Cairo and the diplomatic mission in Benghazi.

After thus blaming the State Department, Dempsey added, "I'm not blaming the State Department."

It was at this brief meeting that Obama ordered Panetta and Dempsey to "do whatever we need to do to make sure they’re safe." Said Panetta, “He just left that up to us.” During the entire night, this was the only time Obama would communicate with Panetta and Dempsey. When Senator Lindsey Graham asked Panetta, "Did the president show any curiosity?", we found that Obama never called back to ask "are we helping these people?"

Sometime after the meeting, Obama placed a political call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to quell a perceived controversy over Obama's refusal to meet with Netanyahu two weeks later at the UN General Assembly. But he never called Panetta and Dempsey to make sure that Ambassador Stevens and associates in Libya — Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty, and dozens of others — were OK. No situation room, no gutsy decisions; the 30-minute, 5 o'clock meeting and the one hour Netanyahu phone call are all we know of Obama's activities that evening. Panetta also testified that he did not communicate with a single person at the White House that night.

Nor did Clinton communicate with Panetta and Dempsey. Senator Ted Cruz asked them, "In between 9:42 p.m., Benghazi time, when the first attacks started, and 5:15 am, when Mr. Doherty and Mr. Woods lost their lives, what conversations did either of you have with Secretary Clinton?" The answer was that they had none.

Who would want to be in the shoes of Panetta and Dempsey? According to their testimony, they knew right away that the Benghazi attack was the work of terrorists. Yet, there they were, alone at the helm, ordered to keep Americans safe from what their commander-in-chief thought was an angry mob of protestors — a commander-in-chief who then left for the night.

The principal obstacle they faced was the time it would take for a military response. As Panetta testified, aircraft such as AC-130 gunships would have taken "at least nine to 12 hours if not more to deploy." Dempsey testified that a “boots on the ground” presence in Benghazi would have taken 13 to 15 hours. Our forces were unready. When Senator John McCain asked why, Dempsey said that General Ham, the commander of AFRICOM, had made him aware of Ambassador Stevens's repeated warnings, "but we never received a request for support from the State Department." After thus blaming the State Department, Dempsey added, "I'm not blaming the State Department."

Senator Graham asked, "Did anybody leave any base anywhere to go to the aid of the people under attack in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack ended?" "No," Panetta responded, "because the attack ended before they could get off the ground." His thinking might have been that there was no point in sending military assets on a nine-hour trip to save the lives of four people who would be dead an hour before it arrived. But at the time Panetta and Dempsey were considering response options, there were over 30 lives at risk and no one knew the attack would end in eight hours. The assault against the consulate may have ended before help could get off the ground, but for all they knew, the assault on the CIA annex could have lasted much longer.

In this situation, how could you not send support? Send it without hesitation — right after the 5 o'clock meeting would have been good. Send it all — so what if it might arrive late. Ruling out political risk, what is the downside? And what if the attack lasted, say, 18 hours? Gunships could be there in nine, and “boots on the ground” in fifteen.

Panetta testified, "Despite the uncertainty at the time, however, the Department of Defense and the rest of the United States government spared no effort to save American lives." But evidently, other than the dispatch of an unarmed drone and a six-man, Tripoli-based rescue team, all effort was in fact spared.

Nothing was done to enlist the aid of the Libyan government. In a letter to President Obama, Senator Graham asked whether he had ever called a Libyan official on September 11 to expedite the deployment of US support to Libya. According to Graham, “And he said after a two-page letter from his lawyer, no." Expedited deployment would have prevented the 90-minute delay experienced by the FAST team of Marines out of Spain, a delay caused by State Department officials who required the Marines to deplane and change out of their uniforms. It could have prevented the Tripoli team from being held up at the Benghazi Airport for three and a half hours.

In this situation, how could you not send support? Send it all, and send it without hesitation — so what if it might arrive late?

The responsible officials didn't even send the air support that was promised to be above Benghazi when the rescue team arrived. Despite Dempsey’s claims that US forces were “in motion” from the beginning, he admitted that none ever attempted to reach Benghazi; no one ever ordered them to go there. Obama, Clinton, Panetta, and Dempsey could not say, with honor, that they tried anything that had a chance of helping.

We do not know what Obama and Clinton did the tragic evening of September 11, 2012. They may have gone to sleep. Panetta and Dempsey did not sleep. Perhaps the harrowing night of monitoring an attack, an attack that could not end soon enough, kept them awake. For they knew that their timidity might result in the deaths of more than 30 people, if the attack continued. And though only four would die, Panetta and Dempsey would live with their answer to the question, "Did anybody leave any base anywhere to go to the aid of the people under attack in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack ended?" — even if Senator Graham had never asked that question.

Then there was the anxiety of waiting to see whether the president would walk in. Would he be engaged and concerned, demanding a status report on what Panetta and Dempsey were doing "to make sure they’re safe"? Or would Mrs. Clinton barge in, at a point when it would have made a difference? Although the president had left it up to them, Panetta and Dempsey had not implemented a single effective military option; they had to worry that they would not be seen doing "whatever we need to do" to help. But Obama and Clinton didn't even care to call and check — not a single phone call throughout the entire, grueling attack. By the end of that dreadful night, Panetta and Dempsey might have asked, "What difference, at this point, does it make” that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton ever showed up.




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North Korea: A Mirror unto Myself

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I went to North Korea.

Why?

I travel to self-reflect, to challenge my own conditioning, and to question my irrational beliefs and patterns. The more extreme my new surroundings, the more challenges my psyche gets. Laughing at others and considering them backward might be a self-satisfying reason to go abroad, but mostly futile.

Do I accept paying half of what I earn in taxes, making myself a slave for half my life and a bit more, filling up forms and chasing bureaucrats, and then make fun of others who slave under a different pretext?

Do I find women wearing veils in Islamic cultures deplorable but not girls who wear virtually nothing while lining up outside discos in the frigid night of Canada?

At the death of Princess Diana, whom I had always considered rather stupid, hundreds of thousands of people in England, a relatively sophisticated society, went into hysteria. These were exactly the same people who until a day before had lived for the next issue of the tabloids so they could practice voyeurism on the intimate details of Diana’s life. Of course there was another subgroup — of do-gooders — that was more interested in watching Diana photographed with starving African kids, while she was flying around in the most luxurious jets. Unable to see the contradictions, that subgroup firmly believed she was doing a service to society.

When Prince William and Kate Middleton visited Canada, thousands of girls wanted to touch them. When Kim Jong Il died, virtually everyone in North Korea mourned.

My question is why North Koreans should be made fun of if they grieve over the death of someone they consider their savior? The shallow thoughts of starving people are perhaps more understandable than those of people who live in comfort.

Apart from always trying to provide myself tools for understanding my own thinking as rationally as possible, I went to North Korea assuming that this last pure Communist country was not going to last for long, so I should see it while I could. And I was in for a treat, an educational one.

By keeping its troops south of border, America has given rationalizations for the Kims’ regime.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not difficult to visit North Korea. Also, I had enough to eat and felt very safe. There were spies all around, but I never felt threatened. They were normal human beings playing out their indoctrinations. Despite my initial, strong worries, the fact is that in virtually any dictatorship, you are safer than you would be elsewhere.

North Korea is developing missile and nuclear technology. I am not sure why this should merit moral condemnation, at least by the United States. I recall that not too long back, the US promised Gaddafi that he would not be attacked if he gave up biological and nuclear weapons. The promise was forgotten the moment the risk of those weapons went away.

I find it remarkable that North Koreans have partly developed such high technologies. North Korea has a population of only 24 million people; it occupies a hilly part of its peninsula, making agriculture difficult. Under sanctions it has very limited trade with outsiders, something that seriously harms and constricts its economy. And it is forced to spend an absolute fortune to defend its border. The military expenditures of its enemies at that border may be higher than the GDP of North Korea (so far as it is possible to estimate that).

I was told that I would meet very heavy-handed soldiers in North Korea. In contrast, I found it easy to have a laugh with them. And even at the DMZ, they allowed quite a bit freedom of movement. I had my arms on the soldiers when photographing with them. At the least they are just normal human beings.

It was a week later, when I went to exactly the same part of the DMZ, from the South Korean side, that I faced heavy-handedness. American soldiers dictated our moves in minute detail; we were asked not to smile at the North Korean security, because that might be taken as a hostile signal. The drama Americans create at the DMZ is their way of instilling fear in people and perhaps their way of legitimizing their presence in South Korea. By keeping its troops south of border, America has given rationalizations for the Kims’ regime.

Ironically, the room you visit at the DMZ when coming from the north is exactly the same one you visit when coming from the south; it is just that the control of that room keeps changing between the two countries. Of course despite their denials, both sides talk with each other to orchestrate events at the DMZ. The televised posturing that they do at DMZ — with alert army men — is only a show, for there is only one side present at any point of time, all based on negotiations. In the end, I could not shake off the feeling that it is not the North and the South that are enemies; it is as if the two governments and their allies ganged up together to keep fear and hostility between the two forcibly separated societies.

North Korea is a giant theater, where the actors have no recollection of the fact that they are acting.

People keep talking about the huge size of the North Korean army. In truth, a lot of work that would be classified as civilian jobs is done by the army; for example, all construction and infrastructure work is army work. You could easily halve the size of the North Korean army to compare like to like.

So do I think North Korea is a great place? Actually, it is by far the worst country I have ever visited. Its personality cult is water-tight. Its government has perfected tyranny. North Koreans have virtually no access to outside information. Even the North Korean air hostesses on their planes bound for Beijing are not allowed to leave their planes when they land there.

For a tourist, it is not possible to travel in North Korea independently. You must be escorted by two “guides” provided by the state-run travel agency. I joined a tour group from Beijing. This was almost a year ago, in April 2012, when Kim Il Sung’s centenary celebrations were being held. Wherever we went, spies followed us. We had no freedom of movement.We could not even leave our hotel unaccompanied. In fact, whatever we did was closely monitored.

Not allowed into local shops, we had to use euros or US dollars at foreigners-only tourist shops at highly elevated prices, making it impossible for any local to convert his currency into dollars and to put it to any good use. Locals not only cannot go to another city without a permit but they usually cannot even move within their cities freely. The army is everywhere and it keeps checking ID cards.

Army units are not allowed to travel much — they don't have much means of transportation anyway, making any coup almost impossible. You often see army men walking from one city to another. The nice looking vehicles that you see on TV seem mostly for propaganda purposes. The army trucks I usually saw were the broken-down old vehicles on the side of the roads.

There is virtually no concept of private property. Everyone works for the government, in a position decided by the government. Every hospital is owned by the government. Every house is owned by the government. People can own cars, but you don't see vehicles. Sometimes you can go a kilometer within the capital and not see a car.

Most North Koreans have no money left to save at the end of the month. They have no incentive to save anyway, as they can keep their savings only at the bank — remember there is no other means of investment possible — where it can be devalued at any whim of the government. Some people might save in gold, illegally, but imagine the repercussions in a country where 50% of the people have at one point or another denounced their family or friends. You can imagine what moral effect the lack of possibility to save would have on you.

Many houses have pots of beautiful flowers, particularly of the two kinds named after the Kims. They look very bright and nice. On closer inspection I realized that a lot of them are plastic.

We were taken to a laboratory filled with colorful chemicals, but all evidence showed that they were never used. It was the same with the big computer room. The keyboards had never been used.

A year or so back, all the universities were closed. Students were asked to report for road work. You can see families — parents and kids — mending roads and electricity poles outside their houses. They are asked to do this, under threat. But really they just accept it as normal life. They don’t seem to know of any other way.

All fun activities have a strong dose of patriotism and Kim-ism in them. There are statues of Kim Il Sung all over the country, statues that must be kept sparkling clean at all times. Early in the freezing morning, I could see tens of thousands of people everywhere descending, on foot or on their bikes, to the statues of Kim Il Sung to pay their respects. You might encounter a group of women singing praises of Kim Il Sung in front of a spellbound audience of locals, while I stood shivering. If one is a local, one must either sing or join the audience or go to the gulag. The system offers none of these people the option of distinguishing between enjoying what they are doing or doing it as a compulsive action. Their thinking and emotions are certainly very numbed, making North Korea a giant theater, where the actors have no recollection of the fact that they are acting.

A North Korean citizen can exist only by complete subversion of his humanity in the interest of the state.

Locals are mostly kept out of the way of tourists. But sometimes actors and actresses appear to create a fake environment for outsiders. You might see a group of locals playing “tourist” at the DMZ, when you know you did not see any tourist bus apart from yours. At the store, you might see a couple of women in traditional clothes browsing the books — all of them “written” by the Kims — and when you turned back after leaving you would see them switching off the lights. At the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, everything is new and fake. The furniture, the cutlery, the walls and the thatched roof cannot be more than a few years old. But perhaps everything touched by Kim Il Sung defies aging.

North Korea is a true 1984, and may even have exceeded it. Piped revolutionary music from loudspeakers installed all over the city is virtually compulsory for everyone. You wake up with it. The same music runs on the TV and, it seems, the locals must switch it on as soon as they wake up. The only vehicles that look in decent shape are propaganda vehicles, with loudspeakers on top of them. A citizen can exist only by complete subversion of his humanity in the interest of the state. He must from his birth learn thought control, or life would be unbearable and a continuous reminder of humiliation.

I have been to Myanmar (in 1996 at the height of its military dictatorship), Laos (where I traveled with early-teen insurgents), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Belarus, and so on. But none has the kind of perfect tyranny and lack of personal freedom that North Korea has established.

I feel sorry for North Koreans. I don't travel to feel better than other people. I do it to understand human nature, mostly mine. And it is sad that in North Korea virtually everyone has been made a puppet and a parrot. It is a totalitarian state on top of cultural Confucianism. The elites have structured it so well that I can see no way for any revolution to happen. And people's minds have been so indoctrinated and their development so constrained that they would feel hugely insecure about not having a firm leader. But that is exactly the path the West is increasingly on now, isn't it? The irony is that Western people laugh at North Korea but cannot see themselves in the mirror.




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Rational vs. Irrational in the Gun Debate

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A month after the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama launched his campaign to reverse the supposedincrease in mass gun violence. With families of the victims in the audience, he ladled out a thick emotional stew of divisive rhetoric and straw man arguments. The empathetic Obama exuded sadness, anguish, frustration, contempt — but no sense of shame about his exploitation of the four prepubescent gun-control advocates who shared his stage. They were four among the reputedly numerous children who wrote touching pleas to the president.

A morsel from one read, "I am writing you to ask you to STOP gun violence. I am very sad about the children who lost their lives in Conn." Asnippet from another, read pensively by Mr. Obama, as if it were the deepest passage of Platonic philosophy, queried, "Can we stop using guns?" To the instruction "try very hard to make guns not allowed," the president promised he would.

That the sentiments of children could have such a provocative effect on politicians should inspire other budding activists. Can we look forward to national policies sanctioned exclusively by heartfelt gems from the children of global warmers and environmentalists? Think of the legislative outpouring as Obama passionately recites, "Please Mr. President, heal the planet"; "I am very sad about the children without Chevy Volts"; "Try very hard to make fossil fuels not allowed." Perhaps a juvenile letter-writing campaign lamenting the Benghazi and Fast and Furious fiascos would get to the bottom of them. Such a tactic could backfire, though. What if children from groups that are out of political favor engaged in similar campaigns: "I am writing you to ask you to STOP mommy from aborting my brothers and sisters." Would the president be forced to take action on that front?

The number of mass shootings is extremely small and stable, averaging only 20 instances and about 100 deaths annually for the past three decades.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), naturally one of the first organizations affected by Obama's diminutive pawns, swiftly voiced its support, saying, “The Academy agrees with the President that to prevent future incidence like the shooting in Newtown there must be stronger gun laws, comprehensive access to mental health care, and no restrictions on federal gun violence research and prevention efforts. . . . Pediatricians stand ready to assist." The AAP was heartened by the prospect of reducing gun violence, and by the prospect of receiving scads of that research money. “No restrictions!” Obama's effusive pleas will beckon many others to stand ready with the AAP — at the government trough.

But, as the funding flows to assuage Obama's mass gun violence crisis, legitimate researchers will readily discover that, well, there is no crisis. The number of mass shootings (those that involve four or more deaths, including that of the gunman) is extremely small and stable, averaging only 20 instances (about 100 deaths) annually for the past three decades. By comparison, there are approximately 30,000 firearm related deaths per year. About two thirds of these are suicides; one third (11,000) are homicides. About 9,000 homicides are committed with handguns. Only about 48 deaths per year are attributed to “assault weapons”; this number includes accidental shootings and homicides that are not mass murders. To me, hammers and cudgels, which kill over twelve times as many people (618 mercilessly pummeled and battered to death in 2011 alone) are much more troubling than assault weapons.

According to crime experts, mass murderers are impossible to stop. In an article called “Top 10 myths about mass shootings, “James Alan Fox points out that "mass murderers typically plan their assaults for days, weeks, or months. They are deliberate in preparing their missions and determined to follow through, no matter what impediments are placed in their path." The vast majority (96.5%) are male. Most have neither a criminal record nor a history of psychiatric hospitalization. In the absence of that, they would not be disqualified from purchasing weapons legally — not that disqualification would preclude the acquisition of weapons by alternative means.

Furthermore, the handgun, not the assault rifle, is the weapon of choice. And, since mass murderers usually kill themselves (or have police do the honors), little is known beyond a few common telltale signs, such as: they have few friends, high self-esteem, and a tendency to blame others for their misfortunes. No wonder President Obama is averse to profiling.

As a first step in dissolving his imagined crisis, the president vilified his imagined opponent: a coalition of evil pundits, politicians, and special interest groups (the NRA and other anti-children organizations) that seek only to "gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves." Relying exclusively on emotion (that wonderful evolutionary class of traits that allow humans to take immediate action without thinking), Obama resorted to the irresistible, and what progressives believe to be unassailable, "if it saves one life" argument. Intellectually lazy, shameless in his exploitation of dead children, he beseeched, “If there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.”

One of the things that could be done is the prosecution of dangerous people (convicted felons and other prohibited persons) who attempt to purchase guns. To his mournful audience, the president said that if we "keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, there would be fewer atrocities like the one in Connecticut." He should call Eric Holder. In 2009, the latest year for which statistics are available, only 77 of 71,000 such cases (0.1%) were prosecuted.

The abysmal enforcement of existing gun laws is the real, and much larger, “crisis.” In the face of this, proposing a package of 23 new laws is moronic. And, as lawmakers scramble to our rescue, the most popular nostrum under consideration, the "Universal Background Check," may be the most moronic of all.

Calling it a legislative "sweet spot," Senator Chuck Schumer tells us that it "is the best chance of getting something done." The problem is that criminals are smarter than Schumer. They (drug dealers, gang members, convicted felons, terrorists, etc.) won't subject themselves to enhanced checks, even at gun shows. Anticipating disqualification, they will simply obtain their guns elsewhere and, no doubt to the surprise of Obama and Schumer et alia, probably by illegal means — and at lower prices, when they simply steal the guns from people who purchased them legally. Why not?

Meanwhile, law-abiding citizens, who presumably would pass the enhanced check, will experience enhanced delays and fees, and the scorn of a national gun tracking registry. Gun control proponents mock Second Amendment supporters as paranoid about the use of such a database to facilitate an ultimate gun confiscation. But precedents for confiscation (Canada, Great Britain, Australia, California, and New York City) make their fears seem less irrational. Owners of so-called assault weapons are similarly mocked, as crazed and, apparently, clumsy killers using AR-15's with 100-round drums to mow down herds of deer. Banning such weapons, it is said, will not reduce hunters' rights, but will reduce mass murders — apparently, in direct proportion to the number of mass murderers who, in their lengthy, deliberate preparation, wouldn't think to bring along extra handguns and ammo clips to complete their missions.

Without once mentioning the glaring, abysmal failure of our immense law enforcement system to enforce 9,000 existing federal gun laws, President Obama proposed 23 more.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, leader of the assault weapon ban movement, indignantly asserts, "These weapons are not for hunting deer — they're for hunting people." And there is little doubt that looters and other criminals will have such weapons, since such people show up in the aftermath of riots, hurricanes, and other disasters, long before the government gets there. Sen. Feinstein's indignation notwithstanding, there will be little support among thinking people for an assault-weapon ban that forces gun owners to greet them with seven-shot handguns and deer rifles — judging, at least, by the current demand for assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines, which has caused almost every gun shop and distributor in the country to be sold out.

Any serious attempt to reduce gun violence must focus on the 11,000 firearm related homicides committed each year, or at least the proportion of them committed by violent criminals. Exploiting children to drum up hysteria over mass murderers who kill 100 people annually is not serious. Nor is ridiculing “assault weapon” owners as ignorant and morally deficient individuals whose adherence to the Second Amendment threatens the safety of our children. As heinous as mass murders are, and whether assault weapons are involved or not, there is almost nothing that can be done to stop dedicated mass murderers. They are America's suicide bombers.

Unfortunately, rational policies are now blurred by the tears of emotion, tears that are being shamelessly used to advance an agenda that is a moral and political charade. In 2008, President-elect Obama shed no tears when 512 people were murdered in Chicago — his hometown where, as a community organizer, he supposedly worked closely with the very people being slaughtered. In 2012, President Obama remained tearless, when 516 were killed and Chicago ended the year as America's murder capital. Yet Mr. Obama brought himself to shed a tear for the 26 killed by an assault weapon in Newton, Connecticut. Then, pandering to fears he helped create, he immediately began a relentless attack on assault weapons, gun owners, the NRA, and politicians (that is, politicians who have the misfortune to disagree with him). He implored us to ask congressional leaders "why an ‘A’ grade from the gun lobby is more important than keeping kids safe in a first grade classroom.” And without once mentioning the glaring, abysmal failure of our immense law enforcement system to enforce 9,000 existing federal gun laws, he proposed 23 more.

If more gun laws would reduce gun violence, then cities like Chicago would be safe. Obama, Schumer, Feinstein, and their many surrogates and supporters could announce, with pious tears of joy, "We saved the children." But Chicago, which has the toughest gun laws (in effect, all guns, even handguns, are banned), is among the least safe. Its citizens, restricted by gun laws, are prey to its criminals, unrestricted by law enforcement.

Outrage over “gun violence” should be directed at the law enforcement community, which blatantly shirks its duty. Conscientious and resolute enforcement of existing gun laws against violent criminals would significantly shrink the 11,000 annual firearms-related homicides.Instead, we must endure incessant outrage over assault weapons and mass murder (100 victims annually, some children, some killed with assault weapons).

This is feigned outrage. It is the wagging tail of an enormous untamed dog. It is immoral. And who but morons would think that 9,023 laws will work, when 9,000 didn't.




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Fatal Mistakes

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America was founded on the idea of individual liberty — that free men are rational individuals whose interests are vastly more harmonious than antagonistic. As such, it was the first moral society. All previous systems of social order were based on coercive forces that subordinated individuals to the demands of society — demands defined by a favored, ruling class. In America, society existed to support the orderly and voluntary pursuits of free individuals. And, in these pursuits, individuals enjoyed the fruits of their own labor, earned through free trade in a free market. How could a fledgling nation of disparate individuals — motivated by self-interest, defiant of authority, and governed by personal morality and the laws of capitalism — prosper?

To make matters worse, many of the individuals to whom this extraordinary task of self-government had been entrusted were the dregs of European society.It was Europe's poor and uneducated who ventured forth to America, undaunted souls who came to create their own employment. Those from the upper classes, unwilling to abandon their jobs as superior intellects, stayed home. As P.J. O'Rourke once remarked, "The Mayflower was full of C students."

In his famous essay, “What Is An American” (Letter III in Letters from an American Farmer, 1781), J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote of this unruly lot,

Alas, two thirds of them had no country. Can a wretch who wanders about, who works and starves, whose life is a continual scene of sore affliction or pinching penury; can that man call England or any other kingdom his country? A country that had no bread for him, whose fields procured him no harvest, who met with nothing but the frowns of the rich, the severity of the laws, with jails and punishments; who owned not a single foot of the extensive surface of this planet?

Arriving in America, these people were "united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws, without dreading their power, because they are equitable. We are all animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself." Crevecoeur elaborated that for each American, "the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement?"

It was Europe's poor and uneducated who ventured forth to America, undaunted souls who came to create their own employment.

The rest was history — in two parts. Part One extended from the time of Crevecoeur through the "Roaring Twenties”: a period of unprecedented prosperity created by the visions, labor, inventions, innovations, scientific discoveries, and technological advances of free individuals persevering through the tribulations of free markets, largely unassisted by government. Part Two was the period since: a period of continued, but more limited and increasingly precarious prosperity, a prosperity constrained by the authoritarian state that emerged during the meddlesome FDR years toextricate us from the throes of the Great Depression — by dismantling the social, economic, and political apparatus underlying almost everything that succeeded in Part One.

The "silken bands of mild government" were quickly removed by FDR's Brain Trust — the intellectual descendants of elite Europeans who came here after our revolution, when it became safe for them to work and rule. United in their disdain for individualism and capitalism, they believed that what had worked superbly in the past was accidental and, in any case, inadequate for the grand plans they had for the future. By concentrating immense political power and unlimited borrowing capacity (not to mention their self-evident genius) in Washington DC, they created a Leviathan that, through political will and money (i.e., coercion and bribery), would eliminate the mistakes of individuals and businesses. Their marvelously noble and compassionate programs — promising social justice, economic equality, academic excellence, financial security, etc.; the contrivances of Democrats and Republicans alike — have plagued us since, with painful failure.

Normally, it is the pain resulting from mistakes that brings success and prosperity. Individuals and businesses, even state and local governments, feel such pain when they ignore natural social and economic forces. They use it to correct their errors; it guides them on a path to their justifiable goals. But the government created in the 1930s does not feel the pain of its mistakes. Its errors simply propagated themselves through its programs — uncorrected, magnifying failure — and onto the economy. Over 80 years earlier, the French economist, Frédéric Bastiat, understood this inherent flaw when, in Economic Harmonies, he wrote of authoritarian intervention:

[E]vil . . . follows upon error, but it falls upon the wrong person. It strikes him whom it should not strike; it no longer serves as a warning or a lesson; it is no longer self-limiting; it is no longer destroyed by its own action; it persists, it grows worse, as would happen in the biological world if the imprudent acts and excesses committed by the inhabitants of one hemisphere took their toll only upon the inhabitants of the other hemisphere.

We reside in the hemisphere of falling evil. Medicare, a system in which retirees receive 2.32 to 6 times more in benefits than what they contribute, threatens to bankrupt the country. But this is not a lesson; "it persists, it grows worse," with the grander mistake of Obamacare. We endure the War on Poverty, a Lyndon Johnson, Great Society plan to eradicate poverty — in ten years! It persists today, almost 50 years later, with the government annually doling out over $60,000 per “poor” household, in effect, bribing some to stay in “poverty” with money stolen from others. Spending $3,000 per student, our public education system was the envy of the world, when, in 1965, the federal government stepped in to improve it. Driven by federal requirements, spending today is almost $15,000 per student, and our "improved" system is at best mediocre.

Failure has become the norm; worse, it has become acceptable. Other than the Interstate Highway System and the early, but brief, success of the EPA (now a tyrannical citadel of scientific fraud and political corruption), there is no federal program that is not a costly, feckless, ongoing failure.

The War on Poverty persists today, almost 50 years later, with the government, in effect, bribing some to stay in “poverty” with money stolen from others.

Acceptability of failure began with the New Deal, as it anesthetized capitalism and domesticated individualism. This paved the way for the technique of using failure as an opportunity for reward and, when executed properly, even praise. The Federal Reserve, which was responsible for the banking crisis of 1930–33, was thereafter rewarded with expanded control over banking. The federal government grew in power as FDR's Keynesian demand management policies took 16 years to bring the economy out of a downturn that should have lasted only four. Yet FDR is praised for the recovery. Today, president Obama uses the very same policies, with the very same result: immense debt and prolongation of the economic slump they are designed to remedy. And financial regulators, who failed to prevent the financial crisis that caused the slump, were rewarded with the vast powers of Dodd-Frank financial reform.

Why do we tolerate these mistakes? To a large extent, it is because of what de Tocqueville called a "soft despotism" of paternalistic government, a government made despotic by citizens happy to relinquish their individuality. In Democracy in America (1835), he spoke of "an immense, tutelary power" that renders us compliant and submissive to a government that keeps us "in perpetual childhood."

Then, there is our regulatory system — a morass of overbearing rules that controls every industry in our economy and almost every aspect of our lives. This is the system that de Tocqueville exquisitely anticipated when he wrote:

Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which government is the shepherd . . .

We (not you and I, of course) have become timid and industrious animals. We are afraid to hold the federal government accountable for its chronic failures. This is not to say that it should have no meaningful role in solving our social or economic problems. But government, especially our central planners and our regulatory supervisors, should feel the pain of their mistakes, just as we industrious animals do ours — swiftly, and by means of demotion, termination, or jail time. Conversely, they should be rewarded for success. Better yet, delegate most of those shepherd jobs to state or local government, or even to the private sector, where mistakes are less painful and successes are more likely.

Or, perhaps, success is but a whimsical notion, as quaint as the ideas of freedom, individualism, and self-reliance that brought prosperity in pre-Leviathan days. Besides, who knows if the poor and uneducated of yesterday would prosper in America today? However, it is painfully ironic that today's poor and uneducated are not up to the task, as they are "met with nothing but the frowns" of our modern welfare system — a towering monument to despair, erected from the mistakes of an all-giving federal government.




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O Canada!

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“Canadians are the only people who take moderation to an extreme.”

— H. L. Mencken

Cross the border into Canada circa 2005, and the convivial pleasantries of the immigration official would only be interrupted — almost apologetically — by the requisite formalities. “Are you bringing in any liquor, beer, wine, or tobacco?” An honest declaration inevitably rendered a generous individual exemption.

No longer. Today Canadian immigration agents have taken a page — the third-degree page — from US Customs and Immigration: all obdurate business without a hint of foreplay.

“Are you carrying any self-defense devices such as guns, pepper spray, or mace?” The eyes narrowed down suspiciously, homing through the response to detect revealing body language.

We were. Pepper spray.

My wife and I were embarking on a mountain bike ride across Canada along the Trans Canada Trail (TCT), a dedicated, mostly back-country route for walkers, skiers, horseback riders, and bikers that crosses the country and which, in typical Canadian all-inclusive fashion, incorporates every province and territory. Our plan was to ride from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic, camping out along the way. Instead of lugging the more traditional panniers to carry our gear, we were pulling single-wheel BOB (beast-of-burden) trailers each loaded with tent, sleeping bags, cooking kit, etc.

British Columbia, with its accordion folds of Coast Mountains, Rocky Mountains, and subsidiary ranges, is teeming with bears. And pepper spray, the provincial parks’ wardens’ (rangers in the US) preferred bear deterrent, was our only legal protection. Curiously, although capsicum aerosols are legal, they must be labeled “for bears.” Ours were not, so they were confiscated. Perhaps some bears can read; or perhaps the label inhibits its use against other predators. Who can say? We later forked out $80 for two Canadian-made capsicum bear repellents with the proper government labels.

Not one question about drugs or suspicion about illegal stowaways. Canada’s priorities are obvious: first, a mirror image of the US concern over terrorism expressed by the immigration officer as a lack of civility; then a concern about liquor and tobacco smuggling (not only are vice taxes an important source of Canadian revenue but they embody a long tradition of reformist social policy that discourages unhealthy habits); and, finally, handgun prohibition. Canadians are proud of their civil society and deathly afraid of contracting what they perceive as a US epidemic of handgun violence.

Perhaps some bears can read; or perhaps the label inhibits its use against other predators. Who can say?

But a demand for handguns persists. Jock Bigjaw, a Dogrib First Nations (not his real name or tribe) leader and self-styled warrior, wanted a .357 Magnum. Jock was a big-rig hauler, a job that allowed him plenty of time to pursue his real passion — alpinism. We’d met on the flanks of Aconcagua in Argentina and hit it off, laughing ourselves into indignity at the 14,000 foot base camp. Politically, he believed in self-reliance and the Canadian government’s duty to adhere strictly to its treaties. Jock fought many of his fellow Indians’ sense of aimlessness, despair, and alcoholism by setting an example of achievement. He dreamed of being the first Native American to summit the Vinson Massif — the highest peak in Antarctica — and toured Canada’s Indian Reserves giving inspirational presentations at schools and community conclaves. In the world of Canadian indigenous peoples, Jock was a hero.

After the climb he asked me if I’d be willing to buy him a handgun in the US, meet him in Idaho during one of his cross-border forays, and sell it to him. Though he was apprehensive about buying the gun, he was untroubled about smuggling it into Canada. I agreed.

* * *

In spite of NAFTA, “free trade” remains an elusive concept — particularly at entry levels. After completing a guidebook (see About this Author) to sea kayaking the Inside Passage (three-quarters of which traverses the BC coast), I submitted the manuscript to Rocky Mountain Books, Canada’s premier outdoor guidebook publisher. They wanted it. However, because of my US citizenship, it did not qualify for certain subsidies offered by the federal and provincial governments — in effect, a quota system for Canadian authors that makes it hard for non-Canadians to compete (which is its intention). So, in the end, they declined it.

Just before crossing into Canada to start our bike trip, my wife and I stopped at Smith Rocks State Park in Oregon to do a little rock climbing. For this sport, Smith Rocks is a world-class destination. It is the birthplace of “sport climbing”, a relatively safe technique that in the 1980s allowed standards of difficulty to be pushed way beyond what anyone ever imagined.

Though he was apprehensive about buying the gun, he was untroubled about smuggling it into Canada.

Lacking a guidebook, I approached a large group of young climbers in the campground to get “beta” — route information. They were from NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, an outgrowth of Outward Bound. NOLS teaches outdoor wilderness and survival skills. These kids had signed up for a month-long rock climbing course that was to take place at Squamish Chief, BC — Canada’s Yosemite. But a Canadian immigration officer had different ideas.

When asked the purpose of their visit, the instructors responded innocently and honestly. Although tuition had been paid in the US — and was already a done deal — the martinet declared that the NOLS program would unfairly compete with Canadian guide services. He refused entry into Canada to the two trailer-hauling vans with 24 kids and instructors. Smith Rocks was their consolation destination.

* * *

In spite of the border crossing unpleasantness and the high prices, it is alwaysa pleasure to be in Canada. A leisurely civility and understated formality barely conceal an endearing earnestness — about the most trivial of life’s minor curiosities — that disarms even the most irascible visitor. Canadians are patient, tolerant, and egalitarian to the core. While the American Declaration of Independence celebrates “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Canada’s founding document promises “peace, order and good government.” As Pierre Trudeau once belligerently declared, “We are in the extreme centre, the radical middle. That is our position!”Nonetheless, to the average American, Canadian politics are an irrelevant baffle mired in minutiae.

Perhaps what makes Canadian politics so unintelligible, frustrating, and yes, even boring to Americans, is the more than usual lack of congruence between political parties and any sort of principled political philosophy. Consistency has been sacrificed to national unity, growth, and development, which — in such a geographically sprawling and climatically extreme country — all parties promote through vigorous federal intervention and subsidies to make settlement and development of its inhospitable extremities more attractive.

While the American Declaration of Independence celebrates “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Canada’s founding document promises “peace, order and good government.”

This was all the easier because, unlike the US, which attempted to design a government from scratch based on the latest Enlightenment philosophy hot topic, Canada simply continued being a part of Britain, developing the same structure of government as the mother country, and following its lead in foreign and domestic policy.

Each election seems to be contested by politicians with a big wish-list of concrete promises that expediency and the demands of a fractious confederation often reverse 180 degrees within days of victory. Canada dodged the 2008 financial crisis through fiscal health and well-capitalized banks, with the “Loonie” shooting ahead of the US dollar for the first time ever. The Economist, however, avers that the housing market is frothy and likely to pop.

But we had more practical matters to consider. We drove to a West Vancouver marina and found a safe place to park our van for the duration of the bike ride, spending the rest of the day packing camping gear, tuning up the bikes, and making the myriad arrangements requisite for our trip — with Canadian talk radio in the background.

The controversy du jour was emblematic of Canadian attitudes, politics and the rise of China. A handful of young Oriental men (some of whom couldn’t speak English) had been arrested drag racing on a Vancouver street in Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Alfa Romeos and other such jet engines on wheels. The police had released them without filing charges. Speculation focused on the idea that wealthy and influential parents had pulled strings. Besides the predictable indignity over favoritism, suspected pay-offs, and police malfeasance, callers and host alike were incredulously outraged that common standards of Canadian propriety had been so contemptuously flaunted by drag racing on a staid city street.

Canada, with British Columbia in particular, has had a huge influx of rich Chinese immigrants — crony capitalists and rent seekers who have made fortunes in a changing China that lacks a rule of law and are using every trick availableto get their money out of the country. Unsurprisingly, China has currency export controls. With its lax immigration policy, passports that are virtually given away, comparative economic freedom, and relative proximity to China as a Pacific Rim neighbor, Canada is a preferred destination for Chinese oligarchs.

Our first day out covered 70 muscle-grinding miles through Vancouver and its suburbs, followed by a torrential downpour the following day. We took a rest day. By the end of the second week, we’d hit our stride and required a rest day only every 5 or 6 days. Much of our way was on “rails-to-trails”, old railway beds reclaimed for recreation. When present, these wilderness throughways profiling no more than a 3% grade made pedaling over BC’s mountain ranges a transcendent experience.

I commented to our host that I couldn’t imagine marching into battle to the strains of “O Canada.” She smiled and retorted, “We’re all about peace — and having fun!”

One of the first small towns we passed through, Gray Creek (pop. 125), had a refreshing libertarian flavor. The welcoming sign at the town limits proudly announced, “Gray Creek, still metric free.” When I groused about the $38 one-night, one-tent camping fee and the over-priced stale groceries, the good-humored campground and store owner-manager glibly blamed it all on the government.

Canada’s metric system is a bit of a Potemkin village — but with one real cannon that occasionally lobs a ball and messes things up. For one (as in Gray Creek), revanchists stubbornly adhere to the ergonomic English system. Yet, more fundamentally, the Dominion, surveyed by the British in the 18th and 19th centuries, is stuck with the mile-based Range & Township sectional land division, which rears its head nearly every time a property survey is necessary. In agricultural areas, rural roads retain a mile-based nomenclature (“Mile 154 Road”) and are located according to the old distances.

At Castlegar, a town of nearly 8,000 people located in the Selkirk Mountains at the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers, we decided to splurge on an extended rest at a B&B. When we inquired at the tourist office, the attendant — without a hint of irony — informed us that Castlegar had suitably good motels, two campgrounds, but no B&Bs. Since British Columbia is the most British of Canada’s provinces, and B&Bs are a British invention, and they are common in Canada, I sensed something was amiss.

According to a café owner we befriended, a few years before — during an economic development spurt — the city fathers had invited a large, upper mid-range lodging chain to open a unit in town. In the US, when towns come calling for a local franchise, the chain, knowing it has an advantage, is not beyond asking for tax breaks or demanding a location it covets through the use of eminent domain. In Castlegar the quid pro quo took more of a Canadian turn — the elimination of an entire segment of the competition. In return for a fancy motel, the city council banned B&Bs.

An American can never spend much time in Canada without bumping — one way or another — into its famed health care system, usually (at the very least) as one of the first topics of conversation after an exchange of basic pleasantries. We’d heard of doctors going on strike and actually seen nurses striking (all of them are now public sector employees). In Castlegar, signs urging the government not to close 24/7 emergency medical services at the local hospital because of budget constraints were prominently displayed. These were nearly always twinned with another sign, hung by the firefighters’ union expressing opposition to theproposed closure.

As uninvolved tourists, we were entertained to observe another country’s political minuets without directly being involved. They gave us fodder for discussion as we pedaled up the Selkirk Range — but not enough to get us up the western slopes of the Rockies into Banff, where every breath up the technical single track was so precious it precluded conversation.

The town of Banff (Canada’s Aspen, Estes Park or Crested Butte, take your pick — but better), on the BC-Alberta border, is the center of Canada’s oldest national park: Banff National Park, the anchor for a series of parks that straddle the Rocky Mountains. Typical of such quaint alpine villages, it struggles to balance demand and development with retention of the picturesque ambiance that attracts tourists.

No amount of passing grades, accolades and applause, mortar boards and robes, paper diplomas or false confidence can replace or instill competence.

According to the August 30 issue of the Rocky Mountain Outlook, “Banff’s politicians are poised to revisit the controversial issue of setting quotas to control corporate chain stores and restaurants in the national park tourist town,” not only to preserve the community’s character but also because some homegrown businesses had already gone belly-up due to competition from recently opened national chain stores. Banff is already home to Starbucks (of course), Tim Hortons the coffee-and-doughnut chain(it wouldn’t be Canada without Tim Hortons), McDonald’s (which everyone abuses but patronizes), The North Face (it wouldn’t be a mountain town without The North Face), Tony Roma’s, The Gap, and others.

As with any scheme that preferentially treats one business over another, the details of this one are devilish to draw up and subject to corruption, with arbitrary choices that are based on aesthetics but that fundamentally affect livelihoods. As the newspaper reports:

The question of what level to set the quota is a challenging one. Options include back-casting the quotas to reflect the mix that existed during the 2008-2009 period when visitor surveys were done, capping at current levels or allowing a cushion, like 10% more. Banff’s senior planner said a quota below current levels creates instant pressure on existing situations, including the creation of legal, non-conforming uses, while a quota set too high doesn’t achieve the regulatory goals and becomes a zoning “paper tiger.”

So as not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg — not completely, at least — service stations, hotels and banks are not included in the proposedquota system.

Out of seven Banff City Councilors, only one declared unequivocal support for the free market; while the Mayor — like a good politician — concurred with him, but artfully hedged her position.

* * *

We took another multi-day rest at a friend’s home in Canmore, less than 20 miles from Banff and in just as stunning a location, to attend the annual Canmore Highland Games, an event Canadians take very seriously. It is absolutely nothing like the ersatz, corn-ball, out-of-tune bagpipe-screeching “highland games” not uncommon south of the border, attended by pot-bellied old men with giant calves in tams and kilts who can talk at length about Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie and what Mel Gibson doesn’t know about Robert the Bruce.

Attendance in the thousands, in spite of a prohibitively expensive admission fee; way over 100 pipe bands from all over the country, with electronically tuned bagpipes played by top-notch musicians of all ages, genders and colors; full-sized telephone poles that few men could even get erect for the caber toss; endless imported tap bitters, ales and stouts; more single malt whiskeys than you ever thought existed; haggis to die for (really!) and fish-and-chips with cod, haddock, salmon, and halibut choices. Even the step dancing competitions, from schools from all over Alberta, were top-notch. All on a perfectly turfed, quadruple-size football pitch ringed by giant, blindingly white campaign tents topped by Canadian flags — the whole surrounded up close by the crenelated limestone summits of the Fairholme and Rundle Ranges.

The festivities opened with a Royal Canadian Mounted Police regiment, an infantry division, and its 50-member pipe & drum band marching to the fore under the skirling strains of Scotland the Brave. The M of C then asked the crowd to stand for an a cappella rendition of O Canada, a composition I’d read much about but never heard — so I was particularly curious. Although the young lady did her best, the anthem was underwhelming. I commented to our host that I couldn’t imagine marching into battle to the strains of O Canada. She smiled, posed as if she were step dancing, and retorted, “We’re all about peace — and having fun!”

Descending the Rockies was a roller coaster ride. Nevertheless, we were concerned that once we were on the prairies, the ride would get boring over the flat, featureless terrain buffeted by endless winds. But when one expects the worst, things can only get better. And so it turned out. Our west-to-east direction virtually guaranteed a tail wind, and the artful design and routing of the TCT avoided traffic and kept our interest at ADD levels.

The prairies are cut by water courses carved through deep declivities and bordered by sirenic glens peppered with deciduous and evergreen copses. Quaint, colorful Hutterite colonies and Mennonite and Eastern Orthodox settlements, complete with metallic onion-domed churches incongruously plopped down in the middle of nowhere, enthralled us.

Even the imported oil-boom labor — people from 127 countries speaking 69 languages — can get mired in way-more-liberal-than-the-US Canadian immigration rules.

Still, we were concerned about a couple of routing questions. The TCT — again in typical Canadian all-inclusive fashion — was designed to go through every provincial capital. Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, is halfway up the province — far from the southern alignment we’d been following. The TCT then heads east and (back) down to Regina (rhymes with vagina, source of many a snicker), capital of Saskatchewan. Additionally, urban bike riding, especially with fully loaded BOB trailers, can be very trying. No worries — the TCT tied into extensive riverside urban trails through Calgary and Edmonton that displayed the best of both cities, slicing through downtowns and suburbs with equal aplomb.

We’d taken to eating breakfasts at fast food joints and cafes where the portions — and the clientele — were gargantuan (giving the lie to the old nutritionist’s tale that eating a healthy breakfast inhibits weight gain). The ubiquitous “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” signs posted in US cafes were nowhere to be found — probably too confrontational for Canadians. They were replaced by “Abuse will not be tolerated” signs that seemed to serve the same function — more politically correct, I suppose. These were sometimes coupled (at one Safeway, for example) with a poster of smiling employees — a black, a Caucasian, an oriental, an Indi…er, First Nations member, a Latino, an Inuit, an Indian or Pakistani-origin Muslim (you could tell from the forehead dot or the Muslim kufi), and of course, both sexes — touting diversity in employment practices.

Every one of these establishments in the Edmonton area carried the morning’s The Edmonton Sun with daily reports on the firing of Lynden Dorval, aka “the zeros teacher.” The Ross Shepard High School (part of the Edmonton Public Schools system) physics teacher had been fired after he gave a student a zero for not handing in an assignment.

“If students don’t do the work, they don’t deserve (a grade) and I stand by that,” Dorval was quoted as saying. Students, parents, the principal and even Edmonton Schools Superintendent Edgar Schmidt sported “Real heroes give Zeros” T-shirts in his support. But it was Schmidt, caving in to demands by the school board, who made the final call, stating that the firing was for “insubordinate, unprofessional” conduct.

The Sun, quoting Dorval,claimed that the firing was “for going against school policy by assigning students with a zero, rather than using the code system the school uses to evaluate work.” Both the Alberta Teachers’ Association (the union) and the school board were conducting investigations. Unstated but suspected is that the “code system” assigns some value to all work — including its absence. Perhaps, these people must reason, there is merit to merely being present — like Forrest Gump — when homework is assigned.

Political correctness (PC) run amuck? Definitely. We mustn’t ruin the students’ self-esteem.

I once argued with a couple — both teachers, one in the Pennsylvania Public School System, the other an Outward Bound instructor — about the consequences of failing students. The public school teacher, a union member, supported her school’s policy of never failing or expelling a student. Since “bad” students were usually “at risk” kids, failing or expelling them would just make an already bad situation worse, she argued. Her husband, the OB instructor, agreed.

So I asked them to imagine applying the same logic to instructing in rappelling (a technique for descending a cliff by zipping down a rope). In other words, telling a student who hadn’t mastered the technique that he was actually proficient at it. I said, “If he went out and tried rappelling on his own, the well-intentioned lie could cost him his life.” They couldn’t muster a reply.

The core problem with PC is that it wishfully reverses the order of cause and effect. No amount of passing grades, accolades and applause, mortar boards and robes, paper diplomas or false confidence can replace or instill competence. Moreover, it is condescending and patronizing — visibly signaling that the recipient can’t handle the truth. In fact, PC functions primarily, as David Foster Wallace has so eloquently expressed, “to signal and congratulate certain virtues in the speaker — scrupulous egalitarianism, concern for the dignity of all people, sophistication about the political implications of language — and so serves the self-regarding interests of the PC far more than it serves any of the persons or groups” who are the recipients of it. It is hypocrisy legitimized.

What’s more, many ofthe“at risk” kids (previously known as JDs — juvenile delinquents) are sharp, with well-developed BS antennae that can see right through the hypocrisy of patronizing, deceptive schemes. And they learn from them, using their new insights to game the system, while losing all respect for adults that are complicit in such manipulative behavior. That’s why they supported Dorval, who, by the way, was soon hired by a private school.

We didn’t run short of conversational topics when we turned east out of Edmonton and headed for the Saskatchewan border. Although the architects’ primary reason for this route was running through each province’s capital, there was a bonus: Edmonton’s latitude approximately coincides with the limits of agriculture.

North of the line, farms and roads disappear and the great northern Canadian wilderness rules. This made for a stunning ride. In places, giant combines were harvesting wheat and rape seed, the source of canola oil (Canadian oil) on farms run by Polish and Ukrainian immigrants. In others, hills studded with evergreens alternated with picturesque lakes surrounded by deciduous trees turning red and gold in the mid-September cold.

Peppering both the fields and the glens were “nodding donkeys” (oil pump jacks) and drilling rigs, while the occasional convoy of “thumpers” (seismic prospectors) tested the road shoulders for underground paydirt. Canada has the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves — most of it in northern Alberta’s oil sands — and 3,400 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in its shale beds. BC residents who live near the border nip over to Alberta for a cheaper fill-up.

The new discoveries, advanced drilling and fracking technology, and, as one oil-industry booster puts it — referring to less politically salubrious climes — “no bribes or body bags” are driving a boom no one is able to keep up with.

Several factors are holding back the bonanza. For one, there is no easy way to transport the thick crude out of northern Alberta. The US section of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta to Port Arthur, Texas has not yet been approved by the Obama administration; while the Northern Gateway pipeline, proposed from Edmonton to Kitimat, BC, on the Pacific Coast (for exports to Asia) is being held up by environmental concerns and First Nation objections. The pipeline would cross aboriginal reserves.

“The other big bottleneck,” the November 17 issue of The Economist reports, “is human capital.” Hardly anyone lives near Fort McMurray, the closest city, and fewwant to move there in spite of the high wages and attractive incentives. Even the imported labor — people from 127 countries speaking 69 languages — gets mired in way-more-liberal-than-the-US Canadian immigration rules. “An Irish worker in Fort McMurray,” The Economist continues, “complains of having to fly to Calgary to sit a test of English proficiency. It’s her native language, and the test is online.”

* * *

When our canteens began freezing overnight, we decided it was time to go home.

At St. Paul we cadged a couple of discarded cardboard bike boxes from Canadian Tire, a megastore that combines aspects of Wal-Mart, Checker Auto and Sears (and whose business model still escapes me), to pack up our bikes for the Greyhound bus trip back to our van.

Next year — in Saskatchewan.

And, perhaps, another report.




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A Classical Liberal Case for Immigration Reform

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1. The Issue that Will Not Die

Once again, immigration emerged in a presidential campaign — when President Obama reversed his position and issued an executive order to allow young (less than 30-year-old) illegal immigrants who were brought here as children to receive a two-year deferral from deportation and the right to apply for a work visa. Governor Romney kept trying to formulate his position on the issue, a position that appeared to be a case for increasing legal immigration while further discouraging illegal immigration.

During the past several decades, our national government has failed to fix a clearly dysfunctional immigration system. The last attempt at comprehensive reform, crafted under the Bush administration, failed to pass Congress despite bipartisan support. Obama may have played a spoiler role on the bill.

In any case, despite having had complete control of Congress for two years, he failed to get any bill passed — indeed, he never even introduced one — though he had promised to push comprehensive immigration reform. Under his administration, immigrant deportations have gone up about 30% from Bush’s second term, and double the rate of Bush’s first term.

In this essay, I will sketch some answers to the following questions: is immigration still vital? Why does our immigration system need reform? Why is getting comprehensive reform difficult? What might a satisfactory solution look like, from a classical liberal point of view?

2. A Conflict of Visions

In the matter of immigration, as in so many other “hot-button” issues in politics, you cannot understand the positions — and the passions — of both sides unless you understand that there is a fundamental conflict between two politico-economic visions, or ideologies, if you will: the populist view and the free market or (better) the classical liberal view.

Populism regards free-market activity as inherently dangerous to society. To this way of thinking, the populace, the masses, aren’t individuals freely living together out of mutual convenience; they form an organic whole — a folk, a community, a people, a culture — that transcends the individuals within it. Free-market activity, based obviously and openly on self-interest, is considered destructive to the organic community.

Despite having had complete control of Congress for two years, President Obama failed to get any bill passed — indeed, he never even introduced one — though he had promised to push comprehensive immigration reform.

Evolution explains this aspect of populism: humans evolved as a species whose members formed small tribes, working together with a degree of cooperation almost unique among animals. Tribalism helped the species flourish; it also produced such problems as intergroup warfare. Populists, however, are bent on protecting the tribe. They feel that the populace, the average people, need to be protected from powerful groups (merchants, capitalists, the bourgeoisie, illuminati, Trilateral Commission members, whatever), or from other tribes (other races, other nations, and so forth).

Populists accordingly tend to oppose free trade (“protectionism,” in the narrow sense). They also tend to oppose large-scale companies (especially multinational ones): “big business.” They tend to oppose the accumulation of large amounts of capital by individuals and especially by investment companies: “fat cats,” “malefactors of great wealth.” And they tend to oppose allowing large-scale immigration, especially of ethnic or religious groups markedly different from the majority of the populace. This is often termed nativism, but because that word has acquired an unfavorable connotation that is in many cases unwarranted, I will use the term “anti-immigrationism.”

Classical liberals usually hold the opposite views, right down the line. They favor free trade. They harbor no opposition to large or multinational corporations or to the accumulation of capital per se. It is, after all, rather difficult to have capitalism without capital. And they tend to favor the free flow of labor, as they do the free flow of goods.

Some have suggested that there is an opposition between populism and statism. I regard this as a capital mistake, when viewed either analytically or observationally.

Analytically: who generally needs to resort to government coercion? It is those who seek to “protect” the populace. Free trade is as natural between nations as it is between people within a community, and for the same reason: we all naturally “truck and barter,” as Adam Smith put it — we all seek the best goods and services we can get, for the lowest price. Coercion is necessary if one wants to block this tendency. When business flourishes, it is natural for wealth to accumulate disproportionately in some hands, but populists suggest that the government block this accumulation. And it is natural that some people will want to move wherever living conditions are better for them. It is typically the populists who want the government to stop new people from coming in.

Observationally: what does history show us? Precisely that some of the most perniciously statist regimes were the fascist and communist ones — regimes typically sold on populist grounds.

In the American context, populist sentiment informs bothmajor political parties, for each is a coalition of disparate groups, and there are elements of each coalition that have populist affinities.

Populism is found in the Democratic Party coalition in several areas. Labor unions — both the rank-and-file members as well as the leadership — almost always deeply oppose free trade. Anti-immigrationism is common among the union rank and file, and also among African Americans, who often view waves of immigrants as direct competition for jobs and political power. (However, we should note that many union leaders support immigration, either to strengthen the Democratic coalition, which supports their empowerment, or out of hope to organize the new immigrants.) Many environmentalists oppose immigration, feeling that overpopulation is ruining the ecosystem. And working-class and poor Democrats tend to envy the rich, wanting to take from them whatever possible.

Who generally needs to resort to government coercion? It is those who seek to “protect” the populace.

Populism is also found in the Republican Party coalition. Many social conservatives, especially evangelical Christians, have been anti-immigration out of a religious aversion to Catholics and Jews. Many social conservatives believe that recent immigrants are refusing to assimilate, with a multiculturalist government acting as their enabler (offering ballots in foreign languages, for example). Moreover, national security conservatives view with alarm the rise in the number of Muslim Americans, fearing potential terrorists. Many so-called “pro-business” conservatives fear multinational corporations.

The fact that the American political system is built around two major political parties, both of which are coalitions containing highly populist major constituents, helps explain why immigration reform has been hard to achieve. It is hard for either party, when actually holding power, to get the job done, because not only will the populists of the other party oppose reform, but their own populist wing will fight them as well.

Let me be clear that while I am an advocate of classical liberalism, I certainly do not believe that every issue can be settled on ideological grounds. For example, feeling comfortable with multinational or huge corporations in general does not mean that corporate crime should be ignored or excused. And specifically, I recognize that a free-market supporter might oppose contemporary immigration, out of, say, the feeling that modern immigrants vote in such a way as to undermine the free market. I address this point at great length below.

3. The Unpleasant History of Anti-Immigrationism

Contemporary opponents of immigration make a fair point: their actual arguments deserve to be addressed honestly and not dismissed on the basis of what past people (who had similar objections to prior immigrants) may have done. In logic, there is a term for the fallacy of dismissing an idea solely on the basis of its origins: the genetic fallacy.

However, if history shows that similar arguments were used in the past and were falsified by subsequent events, that would seem to raise the burden of proof on those making similar arguments now. At a minimum, they have to point to differences that explain why the same argument that failed to prove accurate in the past is likely to hold now.

My point here should be understandable especially to classical liberals, who argue that social and economic problems are usually best addressed by the spontaneous order in society rather than massive governmental intervention. We often argue for this view by pointing to the fact that before the rise of the huge federal welfare state, these problems were solved by private action by private individuals and groups.

Since the history of anti-immigrationism is easy to research on the internet (you can just start with the Wikipedia entry on nativism and move on from there), let me just highlight some points.

  • Anti-immigrationism is a political position or stance that springs up especially in a country or society that faces a rapid influx of people from foreign to it.
  • Countries that are composed primarily of immigrants (such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States) are no less prone to anti-immigrationist movements that are other nations. Indeed, they may even be more so, because a sort of “compassion fatigue” that sets in.
  • Despite the fact that restriction of immigration into the American colonies by the British government was explicitly listed as one of the justifications for breaking away from Britain in our Declaration of Independence, nativist sentiment developed early on.
  • A very big spur to nativism was Protestant fear of the growth of Catholicism. This was behind opposition to some German immigration in the 1820s, and then to the large influx of Irish in the 1830s to the 1860s. During this period, something like 5 million Catholics entered, while the population of the country grew from about 10 to about 30 million.
  • Spurred specifically by the influx of the Irish, in 1850, nativists formed the Order of the Star Spangled Banner (the “Know Nothing” movement). The crucial requirement was to be Protestant. This was the basis for forming a new political party, the American Party. During this period there were intermittent attacks on Catholic churches and individuals, some of which resulted in deaths. U.S. Grant actually joined the party in 1855, feeing that immigrants cost him a shot at being a county engineer.
  • How well have the Irish done? By 2006, Irish-Americans households averaged $54,000 (compared to the national average of $48,000). 31% of Irish-American adults had a college degree, compared to the national average of 27%.[i]
  • One might argue that some immigrant groups have done poorly. For example, if you consider blacks as immigrants — an odd usage of the term, since they arrived with the original British settlers, so were in fact co-founders of the country, so to speak — then, no, they haven’t economically outpaced other groups. But for over a century they were slaves, and even after emancipation were subjected to profound discrimination until very recent times. Over the last half-century, they have done much better. Moreover, recent black immigrants — say, from the Caribbean — have done well economically.
  • Anti-German sentiment lasted from 1840 to 1920, especially with the influx of German Catholics beginning in 1840, with concerns over the Germans’ tendency (then) to congregate separately, have their own schools, keep their language alive, and drink beer(!). In World War I there was widespread suspicion of the German-Americans, and in Australia the Germans were put in internment camps.
  • Opposition to Chinese immigration was pervasive at the end of the 19th century, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. From the vantage point of current anti-immigration sentiment, this is ironic: limiting the Chinese led to an increase in Mexican immigration into the US, as the railroad industry needed the labor to build out its network of track.
  • Even more ironically, blacks — the historic victims of much discrimination — widely opposed Chinese immigration in the 1880s. One black newspaper wrote at the time, “There is no room for these disease-breeding, miserly, clannish, and heathen Chinese.”
  • From 1890 to the early 1920s, the focus of nativist wrath switched to the influx of Central and Southern European immigrants, especially Catholics and Jews. The resurgent Ku Klux Klan exploited this sentiment from its “rebirth” in 1915 to its spread in the early 1920s, and was a large-scale movement, hitting as much as a 5 million enrollment. These voters made their preferences known to the politicians.
  • During this time, nativism and racist eugenics were intertwined, with key players in the eugenics movement pushing against immigration.[ii] The large influx of Italians, Poles, Slavs and especially Jews aroused the ire of those who believed only “Nordic” Europeans were worth allowing in.
  • In 1924, Congress passed an act that lowered the quota of immigrants to less than 165,000, that is, it virtually ended immigration. One of the major arguments pushed by labor unions, among others, was that this influx was resulting in high unemployment and driving down wages.
  • Most waves of immigration did bring in immigrant criminals. There were Irish gangs, Chinese gangs (“tongs”), Jewish gangs, Italian gangs, and so on.
  • More recent waves, such as the influx of Cubans into South Florida after the rise of Fidel Castro, and the Vietnamese influx after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, have also assimilated well on balance.[iii]

Now, in every case, while various other arguments were given, two arguments were constant.

First, “these people” will steal jobs from (or work for so little that they would drive down the wages for) the native-born workers. This argument was used even against the Irish, the Chinese, Eastern Europeans, and many (if not most) other immigrants. Second, they are “strange” or “clannish” people who don’t fit in and whose allegiances are elsewhere (so presumably pose a threat to the country).

However, the historical reality is that the country managed to handle each wave of immigration, and overall per capita prosperity increased dramatically throughout the whole time (within the usual business cycles, of course). In fact, by the outset of World War I, if not before, America was the richest and most powerful nation in the history of mankind.

In the early 20th century, nativism and racist eugenics were intertwined, with key players in the eugenics movement pushing against immigration.

I am not saying that since the immigrants arrived and the economy thrived, therefore the immigrants were the reason why. (I will, however, support separately the claim that immigration does actually help an economy, below.) All I’m suggesting is that the fact that such massive immigration was conjoined with such a massive increase in wealth in the past is evidence against the claim that immigration hurts the economy. Moreover, the elimination of immigration in the mid-1920s did nothing to stop the Great Depression, and it may have helped bring it about.[iv]

In sum, the history of large-scale American immigration is one of broad assimilation accompanied by a rapid growth in national prosperity, albeit with some gang activity — but activity that eventually dies down, even if it doesn’t disappear entirely.[v] So immigration seems to have been broadly benign at worst, and more likely broadly beneficial over the long term. And again, to take consequentialism seriously is to look to the long term. I would suggest that the burden of proof falls on the modern anti-immigrationist to explain why things are so different now that we ought to halt immigration.

To be fair to such folks, they do offer reasons for their positions, ones we will examine in a moment.

4. What the Natural Rights Perspective Shows Us

The history of nativism is a history of exaggerated fears. Many classical liberals would say, “But of course! Open borders allow free mobility of labor, which benefits consumers by lowering prices for the goods they pay.” Yet making the consequentialist case for open immigration turns out to be tricky, as we will see below. So some classical liberals try to short-circuit the discussion by using only natural rights arguments for open borders.

Two such arguments are routinely put forward.

First, some have argued that all human beings have a moral right to mobility, i.e., that all people have an innate right to flee a repressive or otherwise dysfunctional state. This right, it is alleged, entails for the rest of us the duty to let people cross our national borders and settle here. To stop them would be to employ coercion by keeping them in places where they don’t wish to remain.

When I hear this argument from hardcore libertarians, I am invariably puzzled. Such people (who consider themselves the purest of free-market advocates) should be the first to see the flaw in the argument: it confuses negative and positive rights.

In essence, negative rights are rights that entail on others the obligation not to hinder an activity. To say that you have the negative right to free speech means only that other people have no right to stop you from speaking. Positive rights (about the existence of which classical liberals are rightfully doubtful) entail upon others the obligation to, if necessary, give their lives or property to enable some action. To say you have a positive right to free speech would mean that other people would have to buy you a TV station or some other medium to enable you to transmit your views. But that would violate those other people’s right to keep their property.

It seems clear from this discussion that a classical liberal should agree that any person has the right to leave his country, unhindered — but that is only a negative right. It entails upon us only the duty not to stop him. It does not mean that we have the positive duty to provide him residency in our own country. That is analogous to saying that I don‘t have the moral right to keep you from leaving your house, but I surely am not obligated to give you a room in mine.

The second rights argument concerns the right to enter into contracts. If I want to hire Fred to do a job for some price and Fred wants to do it for that price, it is at least prima facie clear that nobody has the right to interfere. Indeed, all free exchanges between autonomous agents are prima facie ethical from any perspective, not merely the natural rights one. Now, hiring people is simply exchanging your money for their labor. What difference does it make whether Fred comes from here or abroad?

But there are several requirements for free exchanges to be ethical. Two are obvious. First, the product or service must itself be ethical or legal (supposing that you take “rights” to be moral or legal). You couldn’t say that my hiring Fred at a mutually satisfactory price makes the hiring within our rights if, say, Fred is a doctor whose license has been revoked and I am hiring him to work in my hospital, on patients unfamiliar with his status. That would at a minimum seem to say I cannot hire Fred if he is an illegal immigrant (under laws morally enacted).

Second, the exchange should not violate the rights of others — should not cause “negative externalities,” that is, harm people not party to the transaction. If I hire Fred to paint my house, and he does a good job at a low price, but dumps toxic waste on Sue’s property, the transaction is unethical from the natural rights perspective (because it violates Sue’s rights to life and property), or any other ethical perspective, for that matter.

In what ways may immigration hurt (in the sense of violating the rights of) others?

This can be tricky. For example, if I am a bricklayer, and after talking to me about what I would charge to do the job you want done, you decide to hire Fred because he charges less, am I “harmed” by the exchange between Fred and you? I am, in the sense that I didn’t get a job I wanted — but then it wasn’t a job I had a right to in the first place. But if Fred is from another country, does that change things? And if so, why?

The historical reality is that the country managed to handle each wave of immigration, and overall per capita prosperity increased dramatically throughout the whole time.

This topic — in essence, how to view nationalism from a classical liberal perspective — is worthy of a book unto itself. But it seems at least prima facie clear to say that my fellow citizens have a moral right to my support in the form of“loyalty.”

Prima facie, the fact that I grew up in this country, that my fellow citizens protected me, together with the fact that I have the right to leave at any time (a right denied to their citizens by a number of other countries), entails upon me the obligation to obey its laws, and to fight for it if it is existentially threatened. These are my duties toward the nation, which is an aggregation of individuals.

You might also plausibly say that my fellow citizens are entitled to preference in some of my actions. If a cruise ship goes down, and I am on a raft, and two individuals are drowning, of whom I can rescue only one, and I know of them only that one is American, and the other isn’t, it is at least plausible to claim that I should rescue the American.

More relevant to the topic of this essay is the question of whether I have an obligation to my individual fellow citizens to give them some kind of preference in my consumer choices (and to expect them to reciprocate). The feeling that we should, as loyal citizens of a country, prefer our fellow citizens in commercial trade is so intuitive that we find it expressed in a bumper sticker: “Buy American!”

If we did have such an obligation, it would seem to provide an argument against allowing immigration — and against foreign trade, as well as automation, for that matter. For it would seem to suggest that since bringing in a competing non-American worker (or buying from a foreign company, or replacing an American worker by a machine) would hurt an American worker, immigration (and free trade and automation) violate our patriotic loyalty.

Yet I don’t think we have any such obligation.I also think it is easy to see why, if we remember a basic maxim of ethics: “Ought implies can.” This means that to say “person X ought to do A” presupposes that X can, in fact, do A. It would make no sense to say that I am morally obligated to end poverty today, because it is utterly impossible for me to do so.

Now let’s consider this concept of “buy American.” Suppose that Fred and Ted, whose sole relationship to me is that they are my fellow Americans, have both built cars. Does the fact that Fred is an American obligate me to any degree to buy his car? No, because in buying his car, I am perforce not buying another American’s (Ted’s) car. To favor Fred is to disfavor Ted, and both are equally American.

Would it make a difference if I were choosing between Fred’s car and Hans’s, if Hans is a resident citizen of Germany? No, because if I buy from Hans, I will have to buy his car with American currency, which means that Hans in turn will (directly or indirectly) have to spend or invest in America, which in turn will give preference to some other (unseen) Americans. As in the previous case, I am favoring one American but disfavoring another — the only difference being that the disfavored person is seen in the one case, and unseen in the other. (I am using terminology borrowed from Frédéric Bastiat, to whom I will return.)

However, we don’t need to think too deeply about such subtle questions, because there are obviously things about modern American immigration that clearly violate the rights of others. One was cited by Milton Friedman, who said, “It’s just obvious that you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.” The point is that if you bring Fred from abroad to work for you and he begins drawing welfare benefits, of course this harms other people, to wit, the taxpayers. Specifically, to the extent that Fred takes more out of the welfare system than he pays in, his migration results in violating the property rights of taxpayers.

It seems clear that any welfare state that allows open borders will draw in people who receive benefits at the expense of other residents. Common sense would suggest that under these conditions the poor are most likely to immigrate, and more likely to exploit welfare programs than the average (i.e., native-born) citizen.

Some classical liberals reply that this is a good reason to end all welfare. Perhaps, but it merits two equally quick replies: how likely is it that the modern welfare state will disappear anytime soon? And doesn’t that mean that until all significant forms of welfare are in fact totally eliminated, no immigration, or at least, no people who are possibly going to take welfare of any sort — which, in our society, means everybody, since everybody is covered at least by Social Security and Medicare — should be allowed?

One last point regarding natural rights ethics and immigration should be mentioned: the sword cuts both ways. The right to exclude immigrants — including stopping immigration completely — can be defended on the basis of natural rights, in particular, the right of free association.

If my friends and I decide to form a club, it is prima facie our right to do so, and we have the right to exclude anybody we please. If Fred wants to join, and we don’t want to let him in, it is again prima facie no violation of his rights to say he cannot join. As long as we don’t interfere with Fred’s right to form his own club, or to join other clubs willing to let him join, we are well within our rights.

And it seems prima facie equally justified for the citizens of a democratically governed nation to exclude anybody they choose.

The conclusion is that natural rights ethics does not automatically support the claim that the mobility rights of the downtrodden and suffering poor of the earth dictate open borders. After all, if there were such rights, they would mean that everybody in the world should be perfectly to move here, no matter whether (for instance) they paid any taxes or not. Instead, it tells us that at a minimum, immigration should be legal and not harm the legitimate property rights of others.

So if we are to make a compelling case for free or even heavy immigration, consequentialist considerations must be entertained.

5. Criticism of Recent Immigration

The most recent wave of immigrants, consisting predominantly of Hispanic (mainly Mexican) immigrants, has roused a new wave of anti-immigrationism.

The new anti-immigrationism has more able writers expounding it than older varieties had. They include a group at the Manhattan Institute, such as Myron Magnet, Victor Davis Hanson, Heather MacDonald, and Steve Malanga. Also among the sophisticated anti-immigrationists are Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, and such academics as Samuel Huntington and George Borjas.

Contemporary anti-immigrationists differ in what they want done. Some, such as Peggy Noonan, have called for a halt to immigration to give time for assimilation. Others, such as J.D. Hayworth, have urged deportation of all illegal immigrants. Still others, such as Don Goldwater, have actually called for internment camps for illegal immigrants, who would be used as forced labor to build a fence along the southern border.

Let’s review the major reasons that contemporary anti-immigrationists typically offer to show that widespread immigration should be halted. I will use a nice survey piece on the subject by Myron Magnet. His piece is all the more powerful because, as he notes, the magazine he edits — the estimable City Journal — long supported extensive immigration, before “flipping” a few years back and opposing it. (The Heritage Foundation also “flipped” along the way.)

Reading the piece (and other contemporary anti-immigrationist writings), you see four major areas of concern about the most recent wave of immigrants: the problem of illegality; the problem of the economic costs of immigration; the problem of the social costs of immigration; and the problem of the environmental costs of immigration. Let’s take them in order.

The first problem is that unlike all previous waves of immigration, which occurred in compliance with existing law, most of the recent wave of immigrants is illegal.

  • The total has reached a high of over 12 million illegal immigrants, down recently to perhaps 11 million (since the onset of the recent recession and slow recovery).
  • This illegal immigration followed the compromise bill of 1986, which legalized virtually all the 2.7 million illegal immigrants of the time (i.e., gave them green cards, or permanent legal residency).

Here is an undeniably reasonable point, and I suspect it is a big cause of the anti-immigrationist antipathy that killed the Bush immigration reform bill.

The second problem raised by contemporary anti-immigrationists concerns the economic costs of immigrants.

  • Unlike earlier waves of immigrants, this recent (primarily Hispanic) wave came after the major expansion of the welfare state that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, giving immigrants a myriad of welfare programs that didn’t exist before.
  • Legal permanent immigrants (green card holders) are eligible for a host of welfare benefits (unemployment, aid to families with dependent children, school lunches, etc.), and illegals seem to have little difficulty in fraudulently obtaining these benefits too. Moreover, their children are educated at public expense (though the increased education may later result in those children earning higher incomes than they would if left uneducated, upon which incomes those children will pay taxes if they become legal, as they often do).
  • Magnet reports that Catholic priests in Hispanic areas routinely help sign up Hispanic immigrant families for every benefit possible.
  • Magnet quotes Robert Rector’s famous 2007 study that helped kill immigration reform by showing that low-skilled immigrants (legal or illegal) consume, on average, $20,000 more annually in government resources than they contribute in taxes.
  • Hispanic immigrants are disproportionately low-skilled; indeed, Magnet claims that they are lower skilled even than the immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries. But today’s economy is progressively more epistemic or knowledge-based. Only a few industries have benefited from cheap manual labor (nanny services, home repair, agriculture), and even then it has been a “mixed blessing,” since it has “retarded mechanization.”
  • The flood of cheap labor has lowered wages for unskilled native-born workers by 8%. Though Magnet doesn’t tell us where he got this figure, it is more than likely from the work of George Borjas, an economist who has published many papers that seem to show a correlation between extensive low-skilled immigration and the lowering of native-born low-skilled workers’ wages. (See, for example, his paper on how an increase in low-skilled immigrants is correlated with lower wages and higher incarceration rates for blacks.)
  • Recent immigrants notoriously send much of their money back home.

The third problem raised by contemporary anti-immigrationists is the social costs of the recent wave of immigrants. The concerns involve crime, lack of assimilation, and the “swamping” of communities.

  • Magnet claims that recent immigrants are more inclined to crime, and have lower stores of “social capital: strong families, self-reliance, entrepreneurism, a belief in education,” and a belief in the future of America, than earlier immigrants.
  • He notes that 30% of federal prisoners in the year 2000 were foreign-born.
  • In 1998, 30% of California’s population was Hispanic, but 42% of its new prisoners were.
  • Cops in New York report that in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, an estimated 70% of criminals are Hispanic.
  • Hispanics have about double the rate of unwed pregnancies that whites do.
  • Hispanics have moved disproportionately to certain areas of the country and have “swamped” the communities, resulting in whole parts of cities becoming essentially “Little Mexico Cities.” This puts pressure on the local school systems, which are failing in California.
  • Large clusters of foreign-born people in a given area decrease “social capital,” that is, make people less trusting, less willing to help other people, and so on. This is a point most famously explored by sociologist Robert Putnam, whose research shows that areas of high immigrant population have the lowest levels of social trust. (It is important to note that Putnam himself supports immigration.)

The fourth problem that concerns many contemporary anti-immigrationists (though not one mentioned in Magnet’s piece) is that America is running out of room for all these teeming hoards of immigrants. They consume too many resources for our poor land to support. As Jason Riley notes in his pro-immigration book, Let Them In,[vi] there has long been an affiliation between the environmentalists and the anti-immigrationists, one going back to the founding of that über-environmentalist group, the Sierra Club (ironically founded by an immigrant).

6. Rebuttals to These Criticisms

I think the case put forward by Magnet and like thinkers is nowhere near as compelling as it superficially appears to be. Indeed, much of it is just silly. To explain why, let’s briefly review some basic logic and classical liberal economics.

Start with the logic. The correlation of A and B doesn’t by itself prove that A causes B. You have to rule out other possible explanations (preferably by a control group experiment). Otherwise you simply have a correlation fallacy. So, for example, to say that illegal immigration from Mexico accelerated as American welfare programs expanded in no way proves that the latter caused the former. As we will see, there are other more plausible explanations, and the correlation is spurious anyway. (Of course, this does not mean that illegal immigrants never receive benefits, or that it is no problem if they do. As I explain in the final section of this piece, the system I propose would allow more open immigration, but only for those who will not access welfare.)

Some anti-immigrationists have actually called for internment camps for illegal immigrants, who would be used as forced labor to build a fence along the southern border.

Now consider some economics. Bastiat, in his classic essay That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen, suggests that what makes for good economic analysis (as opposed to the economically ignorant thinking of the average person) is the effort to look for the less obvious effects of an action when calculating the costs and benefits it brings. Consider everyone affected, and consider the long-term unintended consequences as well. If a window is broken, you see the owner of the house being forced to give a job to a repairman. It looks as if the broken window had “created” work. But you don’t see that had the window not been broken, the homeowner could have bought a pair of shoes, thus employing a shoemaker. And in that case, the homeowner would have both a functioning window and a new pair of shoes.

Similarly, showing that a nanny from Mexico “took” a job that a more expensive native-born nanny held or might have held doesn’t mean that society has lost anything. The Mexican nanny will have money to spend, and the mom will have extra money to spend on her preferences, which will create jobs elsewhere that native-born workers (possibly including the ex-nanny) can fill.

Let’s now consider the four objections to the recent wave of Hispanic immigrants in order.

What about the first problem, that other waves of immigrants were primarily legal? Well, to the point that we should only allow people to enter this country legally, I wholeheartedly agree . . . that much is clear just from our natural rights analysis. But I would point out some things that lessen the force of the objection.

  • Some prior waves of immigrants faced few legal hurdles, so obeying the law was rather easy for them. Through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, you just bought a ticket, took a boat over, and stepped onto American soil; then you were legal. That is one (though of course not the only) reason why our population exploded so rapidly. While there was some risk in making the passage in sailing vessels, with the rise of steamships the risks became minimal. No capital, employment, or other requirements were imposed, except freedom from certain diseases.
  • Even in the early 20th century, when immigrants were processed through Ellis Island, the authorities were primarily looking to turn away people with communicable diseases or a criminal background. Only about 1% were rejected.
  • One reason there is so much illegal immigration is likely that legal immigration levels are set way too low.Until recently, the sheer demand for labor was so great that it drew people across the border. This is an argument for making immigration easier, since the general economy will grow wealthier if productive enterprises can efficiently access labor (which, like capital, is essential for most industry).
  • The reason illegal immigration was easier for Mexicans was that Mexico shares a long common border with us — not some greater innate propensity for law-breaking than was found in earlier waves of immigrants.
  • Maybe one reason Hispanics felt for so long that it was no big deal to cross the border illegally is because there were periods whenwe didn’t think it was either. We didn’t enforce the laws very strictly for many years (following the policy of “catch-and-release”, common in the ’60s and ’70s, though not in the ’50s and not over the past decade or so).[vii] Deportations soared in the second Bush term, then soared even higher during Obama’s term in office.
  • The recent wave of Hispanics appears to be a consequence of factors not likely to recur. It looks like a “one-off” event. As late as the 1960s, Mexican women gave birth to an average 7 children each. By this decade, the rate had dropped to 2.3 per woman, or not much above the replacement level of 2.1. (America’s rate was below replacement levels for quite some time, but recently hit 2.07. About this, more below.) So a rapid build-up of Mexicans, coupled with the weak Mexican economy and their physical proximity to America (in the absence of a mandatory e-verify law, about which more below), is what led to such massive crossing of the border. There is clear evidence that the number of attempted crossings has plummeted in the face of, among other things, more work in Mexico over the last decade.
  • In fact, the number of Hispanic immigrants has been plummeting for a decade (for a graph, see this summary). As a recent amazing Pew Center report (“The Rise of Asian Americans”) notes, 2010 marked the first time that there were more Asian immigrants than Hispanic ones.
  • Most serious crimes such as burglary, rape, robbery, and fraud, have statutes of limitation. It thus seems odd to suggest, as many anti-immigrationists have, that the civil infraction of crossing the border illegally should have no statute of limitation for prosecution. True, the illegal immigrant is committing a civil infraction by remaining here, but the major point remains: if we can cease pursuing a rapist after seven years (even though his victim may still suffer), why continue to seek out those who crossed out of a need to find work, and remain here to work? Of course, once again, this does not mean that we should welcome those who come here to get on welfare.

What about the second problem, regarding the economic costs of immigration to society? Start with the concerns about immigrants’ use of welfare programs.

  • That recent immigrants are able to access welfare benefits that prior immigrants couldn’t is absolutely true, and in a reasonable reform package (such as the one I propose in the final section) that would be dealt with. But there are some problems with Magnet’s conclusions from that point.
  • To begin with, singling out Catholic priests is surely odd. No doubt many do encourage immigrants to take welfare wherever they can. But so does the federal government itself. It runs ads informing people how to get food stamps (actually, more like food credit cards) and encouraging them to do so. I am not arguing that the government should do this — indeed, my proposal for immigration reform would stop everybody from doing this, government or nongovernmental groups. I just resent Magnet’s cheap shot against the Catholic Church. Additionally, the one group most disproportionately using welfare is African-Americans, and they are largely Protestant.
  • Riley notes that when you compare all legalimmigrants to native-born citizens of the same economic level, immigrants use welfare programs less. (NB: in any case, illegal immigrants are not eligible for welfare, though their US-born children, being citizens, are.)
  • And Riley notes that welfare dependency was going down even as illegal immigration peaked, due in great measure to welfare reform passed in 1996. While illegal immigration doubled between 1995 and 2004, welfare caseloads dropped by 60%.
  • From 1995 to 2001, noncitizen enrollment in TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy families) dropped 55%, and in food stamps by 52%. It would appear that the rules governing the ease of getting government benefits along with the general economic conditions determine the number of people on welfare, not immigration law.[viii]
  • Between 1990 and 2004, there has been a very clear inverse relationship between the rate of illegal immigration and that of unemployment — the higher the unemployment, the lower the illegal immigration, and the lower the unemployment, the higher the illegal immigration. This doesn’t suggest that immigrants are coming for welfare.
  • As Riley notes, in 2006, among foreign-born workers generally, labor participation rates exceed those of native-born workers (69% vs. 66%). The unemployment rates for foreign-born workers is significantly lower than for native-born workers (4.0% vs. 4.7%), and among Hispanic males the disparities are even higher. None of this suggests that the immigrants are here for welfare.
  • The Rector study struck many then (and since) as dubious. In essence, Rector added up what unskilled immigrants paid in taxes, then what they cost the government in terms of services, including the education of their children, and showed that on average the latter exceeds the former. But this seems too narrow a measure of how immigrants benefit the economy. It ignores the increase of society’s wealth from the value the immigrants create as well as the reduced prices they bring.[ix] This is surely perverse.
  • Suppose, for example, Fred and his home improvement crew are immigrants, and they offer to add a room to my house for $10,000, whereas Bob and his native-born worker team want $25,000. I go with Fred, saving $15,000. Under Rector’s analysis, society only benefits from the taxes on $10,000. But my savings of $15,000 surely leave me wealthier, and I will either spend the money or save it, thus creating new jobs as well as allowing society to tax it elsewhere.[x]
  • One might object here that in a free market, the wages Fred and his crew would get would reflect what their work is worth. But first, not every actor in a free market will ask for exactly the same amount — some will try for higher than what the market might dictate, hoping the customer is unaware of that true, lower market price. More importantly for this discussion, the presence of Fred is what will eventually make Bob more reasonable in his pricing.
  • Also, the amount of work to be done is not fixed. For example, think of a case such as this: Sue is a trained accountant, raising her children at home. She could earn $800 a week if she could find a nanny, but a native-born nanny costs $800 a week. She decides to stay at home with the kids. Society derives no taxes. But an immigrant nanny offers to mind the kids for $400 a week. Sue employs the nanny. Not only does society get the taxes from the nanny’s $400 per week; it also gets the taxes from Sue’s $800 (or if Sue can write off the nanny costs, the extra $400). Rector’s analysis doesn’t reflect such cases of native-born workers entering more productive work because of the availability of immigrant labor.
  • Rector’s analysis applies only to the very lowest-skilled immigrants, as he himself conceded, but that characterizes only about one-third of all immigrants.[xi]
  • Moreover, it is arguable that illegal immigrants, at least, contribute more into Social Security and Medicaid than they receive, if they are using other people’s Social Security numbers (unless they later get into the system).
  • More generally, Rector doesn’t disentangle the problem of the unsustainable growth of the major entitlement programs from the contributions of low-skilled immigrants to society. The three major entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, have unfunded liabilities in the tens of trillions of dollars. By Rector’s own analysis, the vast majority of native-born Americans aren’t paying their own way in terms of the taxes they pay and the government benefits they receive. If that is true already of a couple hundred million existing citizens, focusing on a million more per year seems overwrought.
  • In case you suspect me of arguing tu quoque, let me point out that my own proposal — outlined in detail in the final section of this paper — would permanently and completely disentangle immigration from entitlement programs.

To the claims about the unfavorable labor impact of Hispanics and their sending money back to their home countries, the rejoinders are obvious.

  • First, notice that this criticism seems to contradict the prior one. If the immigrants are coming here to get on welfare, why would they be stealing so many jobs?
  • If there is little need for low-skilled labor, how is it the immigrants keep finding work in such huge numbers? At the peak of illegal immigration back in the mid-2000s, national unemployment was only about 5%, which was quite, quite low compared with much of Europe.
  • If we are moving or have moved to an epistemic society, then why are we deliberately restricting the number of highly trained engineers who want to come here from abroad? (On this, much more below).
  • If we ban immigrants because they take jobs from native-born workers, should we not outlaw trade with foreign countries and automation, too? Both take jobs from the native-born low-skilled.
  • The point about immigrants retarding mechanization and lowering wages for native-born workers only emphasizes the fact that immigrants generally charge lower prices for their labor. Yes, we could require lettuce growers to use expensive machines or native-born workers at much higher wages, but consumers would pay higher prices for their products. Worse, there would be opportunity costs: the money used for this unnecessary machinery could be used to develop better varieties of produce. And (recalling Bastiat again) we have to consider the unseen jobs created by those lower prices. The money we all save on our groceries, for example, allows us to go out to more movies and restaurants, creating more jobs for higher-skill, native-born workers in those industries.[xii]
  • No doubt this is what led a group of 500 economists to write a letter to Congress in 2006 saying that while a small percentage of workers may be hurt by immigration, on balance it is a net gain for society.
  • It is not clear to what degree, if any, immigrants really lower wages for native-born workers, long-term. Riley notes that Borjas’ initial study (2003), which showed a 8.9% decline in wages, assumed that the number and size of companies is fixed and that immigrants are perfect substitutes — when he removed those assumptions, he got a 5% figure. A study by Borjas and Lawrence Katz two years later showed only a 4% drop, and a later study by Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny found only a 1% lowering of wages and no drop in employment for native-born workers.
  • But other studies show no impact of immigration on wages and employment of native-born workers. David Card’s 1990 study of the Mariel Cuban immigrant influx showed no unfavorable results on wages or employment level[xiii]; so did the Rachel Friedberg-Jennifer Hunt 1995 of the impact of immigrants on native-born labor wage rates; a 2007 study by Giovanni Peri focusing on California, the state most affected by the recent wave of immigrants), showed no job losses when correcting for similar levels of education, and actually a 4% gain in real wages (ranging from a fraction of a percent for high-school dropouts to between 3%–7% for high-school grads).
  • A 2006 Pew Center study of immigration and employment levels from 1990 and 2004 found that the high levels of immigration had no significant impact on employment rates of the native-born. A 1994 study by Richard Vedder, Lowell Gallaway, and Stephen Moore found no significant correlation between the percentage of immigrants in the workforce and the unemployment rate.
  • All this may seem puzzling: how could a large influx of people in a low-skill (or high-skill) occupation not lower wages profoundly and permanently for the native-born workers in that trade? Here it is important to note several important points.
  • First, even legal immigrants are often willing to work for lower wages than native-born workers, in that they are certainly willing to work for low or even minimum wage at many jobs native-born workers won’t do for anything like that wage — picking crops, tending for the elderly and children, working menial jobs in unpleasant environments, and so on. These are jobs native-born workers haven’t taken in sufficient numbers, even in this prolonged period of high unemployment.
  • Second, remember that we are talking about long-term impacts. Suppose Sue is a nanny who will only take care of kids for $600 a week, while a legal immigrant is willing to do it for $400, which is still above minimum wage. Sue may lose her job, but she will be able to move on to more productive work — say, teaching preschool students for $800 a week.
  • Third, the claim that uneducated native-born workers are perfect substitutes for foreign-born uneducated ones is dubious. After all, to be a native-born American without a high-school diploma in a country that has such a massive free public school system may indicate that you have behavioral problems (don’t like studying, bore easily, don’t like taking direction, are of very low intelligence, have anger management issues, and so on). Being equally uneducated from another country may just mean that you were born very poor and nothing else. Moreover, being willing to travel hundreds of miles over ocean or desert likely indicates a reserve of moxie a native-born worker may not have.
  • Again, these studies don’t address the fact that any disparate impact on native-born minorities may be attributable to their being stuck in lousy public schools. Remember, the rise of the teachers unions was in the 1960s, and so the most recent wave of immigrants has attended schools virtually immune to reform, unlike prior waves of immigrants.[xiv]
  • When immigrants send money back to their home countries, it doesn’t just disappear. That money will sooner or later have to be spent or invested here, providing jobs here for the native-born (Bastiat again).[xv]

To the third problem raised by contemporary anti-immigrationists, about the social costs of immigration, a few points need to be made.

  • Robert Putnam, whose work is often cited in opposition to immigration, notes that recent immigrants are learning English at the same rate as immigrants did 100 years ago (though he doesn’t specify the exact rate).
  • The 2000 census indicates that 91% of the children and 97% of the grandchildren of Mexican immigrants speak English well.
  • Riley points out that many articles accusing Hispanics of failure to progress are based on faulty statistics, in that they do not disaggregate the ongoing recent arrivals from early immigrants. Obviously, the rate of English fluency will be higher among immigrants from a decade ago than it would be among new arrivals.
  • If we look at Hispanics as a group, their crime rates don’t seem out of line with their demographics. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports[xvi] that in 2010, of the total 1,550,600 male and female federal and state prisoners, 345,900 were Hispanic, or about 22% of the total. That year, Hispanics were about 17% of the total US population. Considering that Hispanics are a much younger group than Americans as a whole, are typically much less able to attend good schools, and are more likely to be incarcerated for immigration crimes (such as illegal reentry and visa fraud) this seems roughly proportionate. By comparison, blacks accounted for 38% of US federal and state prisoners, while constituting about 13% of the population.
  • Regarding swamping, El Paso (75% Hispanic), which is right across from Ciudad Juárez (a center of drug cartel violence), has the second lowest crime rate of any major American city.
  • Again, if we focus on Hispanics as a group,while the out-of-wedlock birthrate is higher among Hispanics than whites, it is still much lower than among blacks, and more importantly, 80% of all Mexican-American children are raised in two-parent homes.
  • Moreover, 77% of all Hispanic women marry by age 30, only slightly less the 81% figure for white women, and the rate of divorce is the same.
  • Now let us turn to immigrants and crime. As a nicely nuanced study by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) has reported, data on criminality rates among immigrants is often unreliable or contradictory. One study they report from 2007 puts the total immigrant prisoner population (legal and illegal) at 7% of all prisoners, while immigrants were reported to be 12.6% of the total population. But the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimated the total percentage of immigrant inmates in federal and state prisons at 20%, while the percentage in the population was about 16%.
  • Let us take as accurate the much higher DHS figure, though it is debatable. Again, given the fact that immigrants are likely to be younger, less well educated, and obviously much more likely to be imprisoned for immigration crimes (such as illegal reentry, alien smuggling, and visa misuse), this seems about proportionate.
  • I concur with the conclusion of the CIS report, which is that “it would be a mistake to assume that immigrants as a group are more prone to commit crime than other groups. . . . Nevertheless, it also would be a mistake to conclude that immigrant crime is insignificant or that offenders’ immigration status is irrelevant in local policing. . . . [I]n many parts of the country, immigrants are responsible for a significant share of crime.” That is why any comprehensive immigration reform should involve zero tolerance for serious crime, rapid deportation after punishment for immigrant crime, and enhanced background checks of potential immigrants.

The fourth problem raised by modern anti-immigrationists — the idea that America is filling up and has no more room for millions of immigrants — is patently weak.

  • Riley notes that world population growth rate peaked at 2.17% in 1964, has been declining ever since, and will be under 1% in less than four years. It was 1.1% in 2009, so Riley’s prediction seems reasonable.
  • If you moved the entire world’s population into just Texas, the population density would be less than that of the Bronx.
  • Donald Boudreaux notes that even with America’s population of about 310 million, the amount of land taken up by urban and suburban development in the lower 48 states is only 3%, and that figure is likely high. Include Alaska, and that percentage drops even more.
  • Since 1900, we have increased by 700% the land devoted to national and state parks and wildlife areas. The amount of land devoted to agriculture and ranching is no larger than it was back then.
  • Some argue that while we have more than enough space for new immigrants, we don’t have the necessary human support and physical infrastructure for them. Butcompared to what we had in 1920, when the last major wave of immigrants occurred, the US has gained per capita ten times the miles of paved roads, twice the number of doctors, three times the number of teachers, five times the number of cops, and twice the number of fire fighters.
  • Let me add that if you compare countries by population density, America is nowhere near the top, nor even the middle. Bangladesh has 2,957 people per square mile; India 933; Japan 873; the Philippines 811; Vietnam 674; the United Kingdom 656; Germany 593; Italy 518; China 361; and Mexico a rather low 142. America? It has 83 people per square mile, among the lowest.
  • For the US to become as dense as even Britain, it would need to have about 2.5 billion people. There is no way that would ever happen — demographic trends show most countries now stable or even shrinking in population, some (like many European countries) dramatically so. The world population is due to peak at perhaps 10 billion or a little more in midcentury, then decline worldwide. And Britain is hardly overcrowded.
  • To Malthusian worries about overpopulation and the exhaustion of natural resources, economist Greg Mankiw had a great reply, one harkening back to Julian Simon: “Those who fear overpopulation share a simple insight: People use resources. The rebuttal to this argument is equally simple: People create resources.”

7. The Positive Case for Continuing Immigration

I believe the case against immigration has been stated fairly and rebutted squarely. But is there a compelling case, not just that immigration has been good for America, but that we need more of it?

Yes there is. Let us start by observing something important about immigrants: they are remarkably inventive, innovative, and entrepreneurial. Some recent reports offer ample evidence of this.

  • A report by the Partnership for a New American Economy shows that at the ten top American universities for patent production, immigrants accounted for an amazing 76% of patents issued last year. Virtually all (99%) of those patents were in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
  • In the most innovative area of the American economy, foreign-born inventors were especially fecund: they were involved in 87% of the patents in semiconductor device manufacturing, 84% in information technology, 83% in digital communications, 79% in pharmaceutical products, and 77% in optics.
  • Considering that university research constitutes 53% of all American basic research, and that (at least according to Nobel Laureate economist Robert Solow) about half of all of America’s economic growth is due to technological innovation, these figures are telling.
  • This report only confirms what has been a long-standing American experience. For example, a recent study showed that in the period from 1901 to 2011, America won more Nobel Prizes for chemistry, physics, physiology, and medicine than any other country by far — 314 in total. Of these, 102 — 32%, or nearly a third of them — were awarded to immigrants. This percentage is far higher than the percentage of immigrants in the population as a whole (which averaged at most around 12% throughout this period).
  • Compare our record to Germany, of whose Nobel Laureates only 17% have been foreign born, and Japan, of whose Nobel Laureates precisely none have been foreign-born.
  • Another example is the report (by economists Jennifer Hunt and Mariolaine Gauthier-Loiselle) published back in 2008 by the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research. They studied patent data by state from the years 1950 and 2000. They showed that the rate of invention by native-born researchers was not diminished by the research of immigrants, and that each increase of 1% of foreign-born college grads in a state increased patents per capita by 15%.
  • Finally, there is the now classic 2007 report by Vivek Wadhwa, AnnaLee Saxenian, and associates that studied data from the World Intellectual Property Organization Patent Cooperation Treaty database. They found that in 2006, 24.2% of all US international patent applications had at least one foreign-born applicant.

One reason immigrants with technical degrees create jobs is by making American high-tech companies more productive, hence more profitable. That is, tech jobs — like all jobs — in America are not a zero-sum game: those talented techies from abroad come up with new ideas, which create new product lines or improve existing products, which in turn increase the profits of those companies, who can then expand operations creating new jobs for native-born workers.

  • For example, Bill Gates recently testified before Congress that at Microsoft, four new native-born workers were hired for every foreign-born one.
  • And Nick Shulze of the American Enterprise Institute has noted that each foreign-born worker with an advanced STEM degree creates an average of 2.62 jobs for native-born workers.
  • Technological inventions then go on to make all other American industries, from agriculture to manufacturing, more productive, and hence more able to expand and hire the native-born workers.

A second reason technically trained immigrants create (or at least retain) jobs is by helping keep American high-tech located in this country.

  • Over 40% of Ph.D. scientists working in this country are foreign-born. And over a third of the engineers and scientists in Silicon Valley are foreign-born.
  • However, the truth is that fewer and fewer native-born American students are choosing STEM majors. In 2009, we graduated fewer computer science students than we did 25 years before, and in chemical engineering, math, and microbiology, we graduated only the same number as we did then. At the present time, over 40% of all Ph.D. students in engineering and science are foreign-born.
  • But high-tech industries — indeed, all industries — need STEM-degreed workers. If we don’t produce them in great enough numbers — which we manifestly are not — and if we don’t allow them to immigrate here, our industries will simply ship operations abroad to countries that are producing those trained people.
  • Steve Jobs made this point directly to President Obama in arguing for allowing more trained immigrants in, pointing out that the 700,000 workers at Apple plants in China are supported by 30,000 engineers, and “You can’t find that many in America to hire.”

The third reason — and it is a major one — why immigrants with STEM degrees have created jobs is that they are disproportionately likely to start new companies.

  • The list of prominent high-tech companies founded or co-founded by foreign-born entrepreneurs is as long as it is impressive: Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Intel, Nvidia, Yahoo!, YouTube and Zappos come to mind.
  • A study done last year by Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy showed that of the top 50 venture-capital backed startup companies, almost half were founded or co-founded by immigrants, and that immigrants held key management positions in three-fourths of those companies. Each immigrant entrepreneur created jobs for 150 Americans on average.
  • The classic Wadhwa et al. study, mentioned earlier, showed that roughly half of all Silicon Valley startups were founded or co-founded by immigrants. It also showed that over one fourth of all American tech firms founded between 1995 and 2005 had an immigrant founder or co-founder. In 2005, those companies — created by just a couple of dozen creative immigrants — together generated over $52 billion in sales, and employed directly 450,000 workers (and probably millions of workers indirectly).
  • More broadly, 40% of all Fortune 500 companies were either founded or co-founded by immigrants or children of immigrants.

But crazily, our immigration system has only made it harder for talented professionals to immigrate here or stay here (if they have a student visa).

  • The main program that allows STEM-trained workers to immigrate from abroad is the H-1B visa program. This year, as in most of the years up to the recent recession, all the allotted slots were taken in a day. This occurred despite the fact that an H-1B visa costs about $5,000 in fees and attorney expenses.
  • The reason for this is that for years, Congress has imposed a laughable cap of only 85,000 such visas a year. And under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, any company that had received TARP funds or new Federal Reserve help was restricted in its hiring of new H-1B visa immigrants.
  • In fact, the number of permitted skill-based visas (H-1B, EB-1, EB-2, and EB-3) dropped from 301,000 in 2000 to 270,000 in 2009.
  • Getting visas for foreigners already working here (L1-B) is another illustration: there are only 250 USCIS caseworkers who evaluate the applications, and they seem to be arbitrary on their rejections.

Clearly, even politicians who should know better still believe in the “zero-sum game” view of technical work.

Let me conclude with a demographic point. While huge waves of immigration are nothing new in American history, the population change we are undergoing is. The baby boomer cohort — people born between 1946 and 1964 — is the largest in American history, numbering nearly 80 million people, or about 25% of the population. These people are beginning to retire now, and the native-born younger cohorts are nowhere near as large. That means the nation will age, unless we allow widespread immigration. As ZeroHedge blogger Tyler Durden has aptly put it, America faces a “demographic cliff.”

Ironically, Steven Malanga, one of the anti-immigrationists at the Manhattan Institute, wrote an excellent piece in 2010 on what the aging of a population does to a country. Birthrates are shrinking worldwide, thanks mainly to economic development. While we are roughly at replacement level, many countries aren’t. Japan is projected to drop in population size by 21% in the next 40 years, Poland by 16%, Russia by 22%, and Germany by 14%. Since innovation and invention typically come from the young, this means that these countries will experience slow productivity growth rates, and hence slower or even no economic growth. He illustrates this with a detailed discussion of the case of Japan, “stuck in the world’s first low-birth recession.”

If the immigrants are coming here to get on welfare, why would they be stealing so many jobs?

An aging population presents many problems. The elderly retire, so society loses their labor. They live off accumulated capital, so less capital is available for new investment. Their medical costs rise dramatically. And they are less inventive than the young — which means that technical research may suffer.

What is richly ironic is that the US is managing to hang on to a replacement-level birthrate only because recent immigrants and their children have a much higher fertility rate than other people in the country. For example, Mexican-American women now have higher birthrates than Mexican women do.

Recently, economists James Stock and Mark Watson published a study (reviewed nicely in an Atlantic piece) arguing that we face a demographic problem, and need to increase our immigration accordingly.

8. One Anti-immigrationist Response: More Command-and-Control

The facts about the value of skilled immigrants are so compelling that many — although by no means all — contemporary anti-immigrationists have suggested that we “shift” immigration away from low- to high-skill labor. Borjas, Huntington, and Rector have all suggested this.

Specifically, Rector has called for:

  • Continuing to enforce the existing laws against illegal immigration;
  • Not granting amnesty to any of the 11 million or so illegal immigrants in this country now;
  • Allowing at most a temporary guest worker program; eliminating birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants (which I suspect would require amending the constitution);
  • Reducing the number of green cards based on kinship; and
  • Increasing the number of H-1B and other visas for skilled workers.

But this proposal presents a number of problems.

  • As economist Gordon Hanson (a co-author with Borjas in a number of articles) has noted, this “would eliminate the benefits to US consumers and employers from low-skilled immigration” (presumably lower prices and greater efficiency of production). As he further notes, “Economic theory suggests that the wage losses associated with immigration are more than offset by income gains to factors that are complementary to immigrant labor.”
  • He also notes that it would induce shifting manufacturing to lower-wage countries.
  • Let me note what I think is an even larger problem. If we are to oppose low-skilled immigrants because they lower wages for native-born low-skilled workers, wouldn’t that argue even more strongly against allowing in more immigrant high-skilled workers as well, because they would lower the wages for native-born ones? Certainly, past attempts to increase the ludicrously low number of allowable H-1B visas have met with fierce resistance from American-born tech workers. There are already organizations of engineers lobbying to halt high-tech immigration.
  • The proposal still leaves an aging workforce, because the number of high-skill immigrants is not huge.

Curiously, none of these contemporary anti-immigrationists who say they are willing to see more high-tech workers actually try to put a number on how high to raise (say) the H-1B limit. This is easily explained: they can’t. The Byzantine crazy-quilt of various visas and immigration venues (H-1B, H-2A, H-2B, EB-1 and so on) is set in a command-and-control way by politicians and bureaucrats trying to figure out the “optimal number” of each type of worker the economy “really needs” (again, as if God writes in stone how many jobs of a given type there will be) — but won’t turn out to be “too many” (meaning enough to lower the existing wages of anybody, as if keeping wages high is what God wants).

In this regard, I am surprised that the anti-immigrationists haven’t mentioned countries such as Canada and others that have actually tried to implement detailed “points” programs to determine just how “skilled” a worker is.

For example, under Canada’s scheme, candidates are rated as skilled labor on the basis of a somewhat complicated points program. Under this scheme:

  • A prospective immigrant applying under the “skilled labor” category gets points for a variety of things, and he has to have 67 total points to qualify.
  • So, for education, the prospective immigrant can get from 5 points for completing high school to 25 points for a Master’s or Ph.D.
  • He can get up to 24 points for being fluent in English or French, up to 10 points for age, up to 21 points for work experience, and up to 10 points for having a job offer from a Canadian employer.
  • He also needs to show funds in a Canadian bank (ranging from $10,000 for a single person to $27,000 for a family of seven or more) or have a job in hand in the country.
  • Moreover, he must have no criminal record.

As command-and-control approaches go, this is certainly sophisticated. But it has all the defects of any such scheme, since all are by definition grounded on a less-than-free market. The more obvious defects:

  • You don’t have to be Mises or Hayek to see that even if the various levels were set by perfectly rational, informed, and disinterested administrators, they couldn’t anticipate the ever-changing market needs. The economy is a chaotic system. How could any bureaucrat keep track of current needs in thousands of different skilled occupations?
  • Worse, the administrators are anything but perfectly rational, informed, and disinterested people. In fact, they are usually of, at best, mediocre intellect, lacking in knowledge of what they aim to regulate, and highly interested in the vested interests of whoever lines their pockets.
  • Why would having, say, a Master’s in Film Studies make you more economically valuable than, say, being a short-order cook?
  • Suppose you are a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, but broke. Aren’t you still a good candidate to become a citizen?
  • Would someone who trained on the job (say, in repairing computers) always be able to document his proficiency?
  • Don’t many very talented people drop out of college because they are bored, they have run out of money, or are forced to deal with a family emergency? Do we really want to exclude such people? Remember: Bill Gates was a college dropout.
  • If this system is so good at picking winners, why isn’t Canada the world leader in high-tech innovation?

I am a practical man. If the matter of just removing the caps on high-skill visas were all we could get by way of immigration reform, I would, like Mayor Bloomberg, support it. But let’s look at some better ideas.

9. Hanson’s Proposal

Economist Gordon Hanson has an approach to the problem that he calls a “rights-based program,” with a number of valuable features worth considering.

Under his plan, the goal would be to increase the ability of businesses to hire immigrants, and minimize the costs to taxpayers by “graduating” immigrant access to public benefits.

His plan includes these features.

  • Immigrants would begin with temporary renewable work visas (say, with 3 year terms).
  • On such a visa, the immigrant would have limited rights to certain public benefits (education, participation in a self-funded pension plan, and in a self-funded medical plan).
  • On such a visa, the immigrant would have no right to access what we normally call welfare (as opposed to “entitlement” programs such as Social Security and Medicare): public assistance (like TANF), food stamps, public housing, and Medicaid.
  • If the immigrant complies with the terms of the visa, it would automatically be renewed.
  • After a “specified number” of such renewals (he doesn’t actually specify the number), the immigrant could apply for a green card, which as now would put the immigrant in the Social Security and Medicare programs, and allow access to welfare programs.
  • The existing illegal immigrants would be allowed to apply for “special pool” temporary work visas, not green cards, perhaps limited to those who have been here six years or more.
  • To get a special pool visa, an existing illegal immigrant would need to have his employer apply. (What to do about people who own their own businesses or are otherwise self-employed, Hanson doesn’t say.) Since this would expose the employer to legal sanctions, some kind of immunity deal would have to be brokered.
  • Those illegal immigrants unable to qualify for special pool visas could apply for the regular temporary visas.
  • To ensure that allowing this many illegal immigrants a path to legitimacy doesn’t encourage more future illegal immigration, Hanson suggests that better enforcement would be needed. He sagely advises converting the Basic Pilot Program, which allows employers to check the validity of a job applicant’s Social Security Number electronically, against the DHS and the SSA, be made mandatory. That would make identifying the employment of illegal immigrants easy.
  • To set the number of temporary visas, the government could require businesses to advertise all their jobs and allow foreigners to apply, and the excess of applications over openings would be a metric the immigration authorities could use to issue temporary visas in the areas where they are needed most.
  • Congress would set a yearly cap on the number of visas to be issued, cutting down the number when there is a labor excess.

The appealing aspects of this system are that it directly addresses the pool of illegal immigrants, it tries to allow for the growth of immigration as needed, it allows for a shift to higher-skill immigration, while trying to limit the impact on the taxpayer. But it faces some major objections.

  • As Hanson concedes, it would create several classes of candidates with different levels of rights. The temporary visas would carry no welfare rights, but the green card had many rights restored to it in 2002 (under the argument that the immigrants were paying taxes for them).
  • He gives no idea of what the self-funded entitlements would look like.
  • It is unclear why any current illegal immigrant wouldn’t just try to get a regular temporary visa, because to get a special pool visa would require asking his current employer to identify himself.
  • The amount of work required of businesses to post openings, keep track of worldwide applications, and submit “special pool” applications on behalf of employees would be enormous, and would be quite a contribution to what is already a massive regulatory drag.
  • It is likely that immigrants would be applying for a large number of different jobs at the same time, compounding the workload for businesses.
  • It would be especially onerous for small businesses, which produce the majority of innovations and new jobs.
  • It would bias the immigration system against immigrants who want to start businesses or be otherwise self-employed.
  • Worse, again, it requires a command-and-control setting of quotas administered by biased and self-interested bureaucrats and politicians, almost all of whom are ofmediocre intelligence.

10. Becker’s Proposal

One economist reasonably labeled “classically liberal” is Gary Becker, 1992 Nobel Prize Laureate in economics. In a recent book,[xvii] he proposed a novel solution to the problem of immigration. As I have already reviewed the book in these pages, I will cover it briefly here.

Becker points out that immigration — both illegal and legal — is driven primarily by two gaps: between the average wage of the poor and the rich countries; and between the fertility rate of the poor and the rich countries.

Suppose you are a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, but broke. Aren’t you still a good candidate to become a citizen?

While he is sympathetic to open borders, he agrees with his old teacher Milton Friedman that immigration into a welfare state is problematic.

His solution to the costs of allowing widespread immigration into our country is bold and simple: allow anyone who wants to immigrate (except for the obvious cases of criminals, security threats, and people with communicable diseases) to do so upon paying, say, a $50,000 fee (which could be adjusted up or down as needed). He points to a number of advantages of this idea.

  • It would automatically tilt immigration in favor of the highly skilled, who can more easily pay the fee themselves or get employers to pay it,
  • It would automatically tilt immigration in favor of the young, because they will have a longer time to recoup their investments.
  • It would attract only the most committed to long-term immigration, because short-term immigrants would be deterred by the loss of their fees.
  • It would lessen nativist feelings, because people would see immigrants contributing tens of billions of dollars to help the government pay its bills.

I like Becker’s proposal, and would certainly take it over the present situation. But I have a few problems with it.

  • Regarding nativist sentiment, again, it ran high long before there were any appreciable welfare programs.
  • To the extent that we discourage the lower-skilled immigrants, to that extent we miss out on their substantial contributions to lower prices and greater productivity.
  • If Rector is right, $50,000 only covers about two and a half years of what immigrants cost society on average.
  • Worse, for high-skilled immigrants, who Rector agrees already contribute more than they take in, the $50,000 would seem to be a violation of theirproperty rights.
  • His scheme would deter some immigrants we especially want, such as young technical graduates who in a recession can only find low-skill work, but stand to get better work in a recovery, or entrepreneurs aiming to start a new company (risky enough, if they don’t have the capital to begin with).
  • Contrary to what he says, it would likely bias immigration towards older workers who have had time to accumulate the money.

11. Another Proposal

Let me try to sketch an alternative plan, based on what I view as the best ideas of Hanson’s and Becker’s plans, and informed by what Milton Friedman had to say about illegal immigration. I can only sketch it, for each part would require a large paper elaborating the policy details, and frankly, I am not a policy wonk. But I would suggest that a satisfactory program of reform would involve the following.

  • Any comprehensive immigration reform must not serve as an inducement for further illegal immigration. We should adopt Hanson’s mechanism for dealing with it: make computer checks of Social Security numbers mandatory for all new employees of all companies.
  • We need to dramatically increase the speed by which people wishing to immigrate legally are processed. I would suggest privatizing part of the process by, say, letting private security firms do the background checks that any applicant should undergo. As it stands, it often takes years for people to be given legal permission to come in. That has surely been a major source of illegal immigration.
  • Like Becker, I favor just junking the byzantine command-and-control visa schemes, and like Rector, I favor ending family preferences (except for minor children) as well asthe “diversity lottery.”
  • Like Becker, I want immigration to be open to all who want to come for work — except, naturally, people with a criminal background, or who pose a security risk, or have communicable diseases. We should have enhanced checks to search for criminals and security risks.
  • Like Hanson, I would issue a temporary work visa and a permanent residency card, but different from the current green card. Call it a blue card.
  • Both the temporary visa and the blue card would carry the same rights. The only difference would be that the blue card would be permanent, and allow application for citizenship in five years. Both would be aimed at eliminating the cost of immigrants to taxpayers.
  • Start with the major “entitlement programs.” Blue cardholders would not be part of the Social Security system. Instead, they would be required (as Hanson suggests) to be part of a defined contribution plan. He doesn’t give a model, but I will: it would be something like the Milton Friedman-inspired plan Chile adopted over 30 years ago, but updated and improved. That is, it would be like a 401k, but with investment limited to low-cost broad index funds and bond funds (so that workers wouldn’t gamble too dangerously with their retirement funds).
  • This would be the personal property of the worker. If he returns home, it would go with him. If he dies before he uses it up, it will be passed on to his heirs or whoever else he wants.
  • He would be required to contribute 10% of his salary before taxes, and that contribution would be deductible from them, with the Social Security contribution from employer and employee eliminated.
  • Even if the blue cardholder later became a citizen, he would never be part of the Social Security system, only of his blue card retirement system — period. Remember, he wouldn’t have been paying taxes to support the Social Security system, so he shouldn’t ever be entitled to it.
  • Instead of the Medicare and Medicaid programs, blue card holders would have a plan such as that advocated by eminent economist John C. Goodman. It is a voluntary subsidy system. In essence, it would give participants a subsidy of $2,500 per adult and $1,500 in addition, to buy catastrophic health insurance (think of it as a catastrophic health insurance voucher), and encourage health savings accounts for routine medical expenses.
  • The program would be funded by taxes on the pool of immigrants and their employers, in lieu of the Medicare tax. If the immigrant returns to his home country, he keeps his HSA, but loses his insurance. If he becomes a citizen, he stays on the system permanently. Again, he didn’t pay for Medicare, so shouldn’t receive it.
  • Regarding what we normally call “welfare,” i.e., means-tested direct government benefits, I would take Gordon Hanson’s plan one step further: neither temporary visa holders nor blue card holders would be eligible for them. Of course, once a blue card holder became a citizen he would be eligible.
  • Finally, recall that the visa and blue card holders would be paying all other local, state, and federal taxes (sales, gas, property, and income taxes) and fees. So their share of the police, fire, defense, and education services would be covered by their taxes, just as those of ordinary citizens are.
  • All illegal immigrants here could apply for temporary work visas, then blue cards. Their penalty for coming here illegally would be that any contributions made to Social Security and Medicare using “borrowed” ID numbers would not be credited to them, and they would pay any past income or other taxes due.
  • How many would accept the new rules? If the most extreme anti-immigrationists are right, none would stay, because those immigrants are all here for welfare. But I suspect that most will stay. Immigrants who accept the new rules will be legal and in the open, paying taxes in full, and paying their own way fully.

To be fair to Becker, he has a legitimate criticism of any proposal such as mine: that, over time, immigrants would grow in total percentage of the population and be able to vote away any restrictions such as I propose.

To this I have several replies. First, even at the peak periods for immigration in the past, immigrants at most came in at about 1.6% of the then existing population, and never constituted more than about 15% of the total population. It seems unlikely they could outvote the native-born.

Second, the restrictions I propose (such as personal ownership of one’s retirement account, and a self-funded medical plan that allows one to choose his own doctor) would likely prove popular with a fairly high percentage of the immigrants themselves.

Finally, the same point could be made about Becker’s proposal. Say we set the price of immigration at $50,000. Why couldn’t immigrants vote later to lower it to $5,000, or even $5?

There are several topics that space prohibits me from addressing fully. Let me just briefly state them, and my opinions on each, foregoing the elaboration and defense.

  • The first is how to handle those who clearly have no desire to work here permanently, but only temporarily — especially in the agricultural industry. Should we have the sort of short-term visas we had on the 1950s? I incline to say yes, but under the same restrictions as for permanent residents on entitlement and welfare programs.
  • Second, what should we do with the existing green cardholders? My view would be that ex post facto changes in the law are ethically (and legally) dubious, so I would let them remain as is. Only new permanent immigrants would go on the blue card program.
  • However, I would allow green cardholders to switch voluntarily to the new program, and it occurs to me that some of them — especially the younger ones — might well want to do that. The thought of not being on the Social Security system, but holding your own account, which can be handed down to your children in the event of your death, and doesn’t disappear when you die, and is not subject to being seized at some future date (i.e., “means tested” away) would surely be appealing to many. Also, as the Social Security and Medicare programs head off the financial cliff, many green card holders might be motivated to switch. If they do, they surrender any past contributions to those programs and any future participation in them.
  • Third, would I extend the waiting period before allowing those permanent immigrant workers who want to apply for citizenship to do so? No. Current green cardholders — who are eligible for many welfare benefits — can apply after five years, and I think that would be fine for blue cardholders. It is unlikely that many people who want welfare will work for five years just to qualify for it. But we could always extend the time required before applying for citizenship.
  • Fourth, to the issue of “anchor babies,” i.e., women who illegally immigrate to give birth to children who are then automatically citizens, while I don’t regard this as a major problem (there are only about 1 million such children, after so many years of a porous border), I would support conditioning the passage of immigration reform on the passage of a constitutional amendment conferring birth citizenship on only those children whose parents are here legally.

We have ample room for many, many more productive people. Let’s let them in, in numbers and skill-sets governed by the free market — but make sure they pay their own way, going forward.


[i] One might quickly reply that the Irish are above average now, but only after 150 years. But the equally quick counter is that their labor helped build this country along the way, especially in building the canals and railroads that were crucial to America’s rapid economic growth. Moreover, they gave not just their labor but their blood, starting most prominently in the Civil War — over 150,000 Irish fought for the Union, often as volunteers, but mostly as draftees. Of course, being immediately subject to the draft upon signing their citizenship papers made many recent Irish immigrants oppose that war, and some rioted against the draft. But the Irish certainly fought in huge numbers in the Civil War, and every war since.
Remember that the imperative of consequentialism is that we look at the costs and benefits over the long term. After all, virtually any economic change (introducing new technology, trading with other countries, or what have you) would always be bad, since somebody is bound to be discomforted in the short term.

[ii] One such worthy was Henry Goddard, IQ testing guru, who argued that 60% of Jewish immigrants came out at the “moron” level on his tests. Harry Laughlin, superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office from its founding in 1910 until 1939, was also an influential advocate for immigration restriction. Congress certainly heard testimony from the eugenicists arguing in favor of the restrictions on immigration. True, Congress hears a lot of testimony, and there is no way to tell how much the eugenicist testimony helped the cause of ending immigration. But the fact remains that their testimony was both solicited and given.

[iii] Hispanic immigrants are now the biggest groups in some Southwestern cities, such as Los Angeles and El Paso. Some argue that they have “ruined” L.A. and its formerly “good” school system, but that is, to say the least, debatable. El Paso, with its 75% Hispanic population, has the second lowest crime rate of any big city, and a decent school system. Streitfeld suggests that Hispanics have helped revitalize parts of L.A. that were hit hard by the earlier recessions the city has undergone. Moreover, the school system in L.A. has been going downhill ever since teachers unions assumed control, decades back.
The best answer to the claim that the influx of Hispanic immigrants has “ruined” the L.A. or California school system is the report by the Goldwater Institute studying the impact of Jeb Bush’s reforms on Florida’s school system. After his far-reaching reforms — which increased standards and genuine measures of progress, ended “social promotion,” instituted merit-based pay for teachers, and most importantly enhanced school choice — Florida’s Hispanic students statewide have the second-highest reading scores in the nation, exceeding the scores for all students in California. What has hurt California’s public school system is manifestly not the presence of Hispanic kids, but the complete control of it by the teachers unions, who block all attempts to reform it.
Obviously, I am not saying that the presence of large numbers of students who do not have English as their native tongue is beneficial to a school system. It is of course an extra burden. I am merely observing that in the past, prior to the advent of complete union control of the US public education system, it presented no insurmountable obstacles, and that where today proper reform has been instituted, it presents no insurmountable obstacles.

[iv] The argument for this is that America prior to this point had high tariffs, thus making markets abroad harder to access, but America during this period allowed virtually unlimited immigration. With the severe anti-immigrationist law of 1924, for the first time in history we had no free influx of labor (and thus consumers) and high tariffs, which were jacked up even more, shortly thereafter. The presence of huge pools of new residents prior to that provided both lower wages (hence prices) for domestically produced goods (which otherwise would be higher with the companies protected from inexpensive labor abroad), and increased internal markets for the produce of the nation. Again, I am not arguing that the immigration was “the” cause of the Depression at all, merely that there is reason to think that it may have played a role, and in any case, ending it did nothing to hold off the disaster.

[v] It might be claimed that the continued existence of Italian-American and Russian-Americangangs shows that not all ethnic groups rid themselves of organized crime. But I don’t find this in the least persuasive. The heyday of Italian-American organized crime was the 1920s–1930s, with lingering power in a few big cities into the 1980s, and pretty much shut down during the 1990s, despite the resurgence of gangster movies during the 1970s and onwards. Moreover, if the Italian-American gangs in their prime were more prominent than prior ethnic gangs, that was because those prior ethnic gangs weren’t given the gift of prohibition. As to the current presence of Russian-American gangs, they are from an entirely different wave of immigrants, viz., post-Soviet immigration.
Again, one might argue that this history suggests that any massive influx of immigrants of the same ethnic class will bring organized crime. Perhaps, but even if so, the history also shows that the costs of this organized crime is minor compared to the long-term benefits of the new groups — especially if you don’t have Prohibition!

[vi] Riley, Jason Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders (NY: Gotham Books, 2008). See pp. 15–37.

[vii] In fact, Magnet seems to suggests this view, when he quotes approvingly his colleague Malanga, who says, “Those earlier immigrants brought in a rich store of social capital: strong families, self-reliance, entrepreneurialism, a belief in education for their children, optimism about the future and belief in their new land rather than fatalism and cynicism. . . . by contrast, the American-born children of Mexican immigrants, two and a half times likelier to drop out of high school than the average American-born kid, earn less than the national average.”

[viii] It might be argued that illegal immigrants do cost society in education, which in California is about $13,000 yearly per student in direct costs alone. But the replies are obvious. First, to the extent those children are or become citizens, which many or even most eventually do, their education pays off in higher earnings to them, hence higher taxes paid to the governments (local, state, and federal). This is likely to be true even for L.A., whose school system processes a disproportionate percentage of California’s immigrant population, unless of course L.A. drives those educated children away by anti-business policies. Second, school expenses are paid primarily by property taxes, which illegal immigrants certainly pay (either directly, if they own their property, or indirectly, if they rent — as landlords build taxes into the rent they charge).

[ix] It might be replied that while reduced prices through lower wages increase society’s wealth, they lower wealth per capita. But this is dubious under a static analysis, and very dubious under a dynamic one. Statically, while some people’s wages may be lowered under immigration (though as I argue later, this is not clearly true), since prices go down, wages buy more, so average real wealth likely stays the same. This is precisely the same point with free trade — allowing cheap foreign goods will lower some wages short term, but the vastly lowered prices increase per capita wealth. Dynamically, by applying more efficient labor, immigration allows the more productive deployment of native-born labor — I point I explore later.

[x] A quick reply is that Fred and his crew may have a whole passel of kids, whose education is a cost to society. However, the equally quick counter is that Rector’s analysis already includes that cost. I am pointing out some benefits of immigration his analysis leaves out.

[xi] “Immigration Heritage,” editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Friday, June 8, 2007. This includes both legal and illegal immigrants.

[xii] It might be suggested that if we bring back the bracero program, and pay immigrants a low wage to (say) pick crops, they will just unionize, and the wages will just rise to what native-born workers would charge. The reply is that this has not happened, and didn’t happen during the period in the 1950s when the first Bracero program was enacted. Moreover, if the new bracero workers did unionize, then mechanization would become cost effective. That would means that the cost would go up for everyone, but that will happen anyway is we do not allow for immigrant labor.
Also, remember this: the rate of private sector unionization continues to decrease even among native-born workers. Only about 7% of private industry workers are now in unions, way down from the 35% or so back in the early 1950s.

[xiii] It might be suspected that the reason the Card study showed no impact on wages is because the Mariel immigrants were in large part insane asylum or prison inmates, so wound up in institutions. But the Card paper addresses this, arguing that only a small percentage of the Mariel immigrants were criminals or mentally ill, and that most of those were soon deported back to Cuba. Perhaps the Mariel immigration was too small for a proper statistical analysis to show the negative effects of the criminal and mentally ill Marielistas on society, but in any case the other studies cited looked at other groups of immigrants, and the general conclusion was the same.

[xiv] Again, one might argue that the presence of large numbers of children of immigrants is a big part of why the public schools are lousy to begin with. To that point, see the study “Demography Defeated: Florida’s K-12 Reforms and Their Lessons for the Nation” (cited above) showing that after reform in Florida, Hispanic students have moved ahead nationally — and so have African-American students. As I noted above, historically, before teachers unions took control of the American public school system, waves of non-native speakers (Jews, Poles, Chinese, Hungarians, Germans, Italians, and so on) were educated rapidly in the American public school system in the dominant language, and it is now being done successfully in schools that have been reformed (under the pressure of school choice in particular).

[xv] Even if the money sent home by the immigrant is converted to the local currency and invested there, the bank or other entity exchanging the American currency for foreign currency would have to spend it or invest it back here, again creating jobs. This is what I mean by the qualifier “directly or indirectly.”

[xvi] See page 13.

[xvii] Becker, Gary. The Challenge of Immigration (London: The Institute of Economic Affairs, 2011).




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H.L. Mencken, Where Have You Gone?

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At least in the most obvious sense, my title poses a dumb question. Where has H.L. Mencken gone? He’s been dead for more than 50 years. But though he’s long gone, and we won’t see his like again, many of those who cherish liberty wish they could call him back. America could use another like him, perhaps now as never before.

My introduction to the Sage of Baltimore came in my sophomore year of high school. Sharon Morrow, a teacher I wish I could personally thank today, extolled his virtues to our journalism class. To us, he was just an old dead guy. If a teacher liked anybody famous, the poor soul was automatically consigned to the purgatory of the uncool. But to suck up, this aspiring journalist read A Mencken Chrestomathy — a huge anthology of his essays and columns. Read it, and wrote a report.

I expected the project to be a chore, but I’ve seldom enjoyed a book so much before or since. Some of the pieces were dated, lampooning or lambasting people and notions nobody has heard of since the Roaring Twenties. But many could apply as sharply to today’s events as to those of times long past. What wicked and delicious fun Mencken would have had in 2012!

Henry Louis Mencken hated sham. He made mincemeat of hypocrites. He had a curmudgeonly love for this country, and he often spoke harshly to his American audience. But always with a twinkle in his eye. He could bring a reader to vein-popping outrage in one paragraph and pants-wetting laughter in the next.

He was a staunch libertarian before anybody knew what the word meant. “The government I live under has been my enemy all my active life,” he once wrote. “When it has not been engaged in silencing me it has been engaged in robbing me. So far as I can recall I have never had any contact with it that was not an outrage on my dignity and an attack on my security.”

Mencken certainly would not hesitate to call any chief executive who spent four years blaming his failures on a predecessor’s mistakes exactly what he is: incompetent.

The young Ayn Rand regarded Mencken as an inspiration, remarking in 1934 that he was “one whom I admire as the greatest representative of a philosophy to which I want to dedicate my whole life.” If anybody ever stood up against Leviathan and refused to blink, it was he. In the feverish days leading up to World War I, he sacrificed his job as a newspaper columnist to denounce President Woodrow Wilson’s manipulation of public opinion in favor of entering the conflict. As Franklin Roosevelt amassed unprecedented power and craftily angled the US into World War II, Mencken earned FDR’s ire by opposing him and, in the process, lost another job.

His bedevilment of Roosevelt started during the Great Depression. “The New Deal began,” he famously observed, “like the Salvation Army, by promising to save humanity. It ended, again like the Salvation Army, by running flophouses and disturbing the peace.”

What might he have to say about our apparently endless War on Terror? Or — given his merciless mockeries of Prohibition — about our even more interminable War on Drugs?

About the first national crusade for sobriety, he had this to say:

Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.

Mencken was my introduction to libertarian thought. Not only to its thought per se, but to its attitude. I sensed even then, in the Carter years, that if he were to be miraculously resurrected (a notion at which he, a lifelong unbeliever, would cackle), he would give our moribund nation a much-needed kick in the pants. He had no use for whining or victimhood, and the spectacle of a president lamenting our “malaise” would be met with appropriate scorn. He certainly would not hesitate to call any chief executive who spent four years blaming his failures on a predecessor’s mistakes exactly what he is: incompetent.

“On some great and glorious day,” predicted the Sage, “the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

He knew a coverup when he saw one, and made sure it didn’t stay covered up for long. Campaign seasons were sources of neverending merriment to him. Never a partisan cheerleader, he treated his readership to what he saw as the unvarnished truth about both sides. And when a public servant displayed the integrity to do what was right, against overwhelming opposition, Mencken was likely to be the one voice in the press to point it out. Even though, about ambitious office-seekers in general, he remarked that “a good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”

What we lack today, in the mainstream media, is people who simply observe and comment without owing automatic allegiance to either side. Or observe and report with no preconceived agenda. Fox News, billing itself as “fair and balanced,” may see a different angle from its competitors, but it still sees only one angle. Like the blind men in a well-known Buddhist parable, some think the elephant is all trunk, while others reduce it to its giant posterior.

A people fit to govern itself needs to keep its baloney-detectors in keen working order. The people need to know when they’re being duped. They need to know how to recognize their own best interests. This requires sharp thinking on the important issues of the day. In our own day, journalists with the courage and wit to perform this service are in woefully short supply.

From 1899, as a cub reporter, until 1948, when he was felled by a stroke, Mencken did his utmost to help Americans understand the human drama and recognize the players for what they were. I owe him my rambunctious love for liberty, deep appreciation for the written word, and taste for fine cigars. I can’t personally thank him, any more than I can my high school journalism teacher. This essay will need to suffice.

“In every unbeliever’s heart there is an uneasy feeling that, after all, he may awake after death and find himself immortal.” Mr. Mencken, your great soul is immortal indeed. Too bad it can’t drag itself back here and knock some sense into us.




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