A response to Alex Nowrasteh

In re “Thomas Sowell on Immigration,” by Alex Nowrasteh:

Thomas Sowell is an influential and prolific writer whose books span the social sciences.  My shelves are full of them, decorated with underlines, marginalia, and dog-eared pages.  But in his recent columns and comments on immigration, Sowell has not approached that topic with the same rigorous attention to detail that he has in his books.  His reliance on incomplete historical examinations in his columns leads him to seemingly support a vast array of government interventions.  In these writings, Sowell makes the same mistakes that he accuses the “anointed” of making in many of his books.

Wow, there’s not as much “rigorous attention to detail” in Sowell’s columns as there is in his books? Would that have anything to do with the length of columns versus books?

Fortunately, the author stops just short of accusing Sowell of hypocrisy, although he doesn’t stop short enough to avoid leaving the distinct impression that that is exactly what he is saying. Hey, if we’re going to assume facts not in evidence about Sowell, what’s good for the goose, etc.

As for “government interventions,” that’s an interesting way to characterize a more targeted approach to immigration than a welcome mat for everybody who doesn’t have multiple felonies on their record. (Hey, if we’re going to play the false dichotomy game, then let’s play, eh?)

In the column I’ll focus on, professor Sowell’s claim that today’s debate about immigration reform is not as fact-based as previous debates.

Sowell’s “claim” that the current debate about “immigration reform” ignores differences among groups as predictors to future success is exemplified in the case of Jason Richwine, who had the temerity to write about those differences and was roundly condemned as a racist for his troubles. Sowell’s larger point had far more to do with the fact that differences between groups are ignored in the current debate, than holding the Commission discussed as a paragon of public policy or statistical rigor.

The implication is that a lack of facts will lead to poor policy decisions today whereas the policy changes 100 years ago were well thought out and fact-based.  He wrote:

A hundred years ago, the immigration controversies of that era were discussed in the context of innumerable facts about particular immigrant groups. Many of those facts were published in a huge, multi-volume 1911 study by a commission headed by Senator William P. Dillingham.

First, Sowell’s description of the Dillingham Commission’s commitment to facts is inaccurate.  It was a bi-partisan committee formed in 1907 to investigate the impacts of immigration on the United States – especially the so-called “new immigrants” from Eastern and Southern Europe.  The Commission was staffed by Progressives who believed that scientific managerial methods could effectively plan large parts of society and the economy by using the power of the government.  With the exception of one member, William S. Bennet of New York, the commission was stacked with members who had previously supported immigration restrictions.

Well, Mr. Nowrasteh’s implication (two can play at that game, eh?) that the current debate is as (or more) fact-based as the study to which Sowell makes passing reference is belied by the ease with which anyone who talks about group differences is branded as a racist. Again, c.f., Jason Richwine.

The Dillingham Commission produced 42 volumes by 1911, arguing that the “new immigrants” were fundamentally different from old immigrants who came from Western and Northern Europe.  Their culture, rates of economic success, and assimilative potential were supposedly severely constrained.  Those are the same claims made by today’s immigration opponents.  The Dillingham Commission suggested that immigration restrictions (ranging from relatively modest literacy tests to outright quotas and other massive interventions) could solve this “problem.”

Again, Sowell’s larger point is that measurable and pronounced differences exist among groups, and those differences should not be ignored when public policy vis. immigration is debated. But Mr. Nowrasteh seems to want to use Sowell’s reference to the Commission’s study as a means to refute Sowell’s larger point. Guilt by association with Progressives?

Information gathered by the Commission that showed new immigrants succeeding and assimilating was ignored or explained away because it contrasted with the world view of the commission members.  When charitable societies started to report on questionnaire slips that large numbers of Western and Northern Europeans received aid, “the slips were returned to societies for further information or for corrections.” The Commission defined retardation for children as being behind in school – an absurd definition designed to exaggerate retardation among non-English speaking immigrant children.  In American schools, the Dillingham Commission found that 66.9 percent of Polish Jewish students and 63.6 percent of Southern Italians students were retarded.  The Dillingham Commission was intensely worried about Asian immigration.

OK, we get it. The assertion is that the study was flawed, and flawed conclusions issued from flawed data. Does Mr. Nowrasteh believe that in a book-length treatment of the topic, Sowell would have ignored those flaws? I mean, if he’s getting all Progressive on us suddenly, would he have accepted the global veracity of a huge study that he mentions in passing as a preliminary comment in a column, or would he have perhaps at least touched on some of the issues with the study that Mr. Nowrasteh has the luxury of examining in more detail than Sowell does in a syndicated column?

Today’s immigration debate is better off without these types of “facts” produced by a commission designed to reach a certain conclusion.

If Mr. Nowrasteh has concluded that Sowell wants to base current immigration policy on that study, he appears to have misread Sowell’s column. If he doesn’t believe that, then the preceding excerpt from his column is the worst kind of sloppy, illogical, emotional grandstanding.

The Commission’s findings were similar to Sowell’s comment: “The immigrants of today are very different in many ways from those who arrived here a hundred years ago.”  Literally, Sowell is correct, but the implication that they are different in ways that make them less suited to modern American society doesn’t follow.  Immigration restrictionists 100 years ago said the same thing about Southern and Eastern European immigrants, looking back fondly on the Germans, Nordics, and Irish immigrants who came before.  Brutal terrorist bombings carried out by Italian anarcho-communists, including 38 mail bombs in 1919 and numerous attempts on the life of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, confirmed the pessimism.

How did we get from Sowell is literally correct, to syndicalists and Palmer raids? Dude.

Before the Dillingham Commission, immigration restrictionists in the early and mid-19th century thought the Germans and Catholic Irish were unassimilable compared to the Scots-Irish and Huguenots who came before.  One worry about the Germans was that their collectivist culture and political struggles in Germany would clash with the individualism necessary to make freedom flourish in America.  Catholics were considered to harbor a deep anti-republicanism and a culture inimical to liberty.  Time has shown how absurd those worries were.

Speaking of absurd, while I’m sure some readers will learn something they didn’t already know about our friends the Progressives and their racist/eugenicist worldviews from Mr. Nowrasteh’s column, the implication (yes, here we go with implications again, it seems only fair) seems to be that Sowell shares these views. If that was not the intent, it was the result.

Thomas Sowell wrote twobooks explaining the flaws of supporting massive government interventions based on the recommendations of elites – especially in the face of so much historical and economic counter-evidence.  In the Vision of the Anointed, Sowell rightly criticizes the Ralph Naders of the world for spinning tales of doom and gloom that call for government intervention based on very little evidence.  He humorously calls these people Teflon prophets.  But Sowell is acting as a Teflon prophet when it comes to immigration.  In a cagey way, he predicts that great harm will come to the United States due to immigration.

He does what (emphasis added above)?

That is probably the most intellectually-dishonest sentence in the whole column. Sowell does no such thing, and it borders on the absurd to say that that is what he is arguing.

Arguing for an immigration policy that takes into account what qualities we would like to see in those allowed the privilege of emigrating to America is not predicting “that great harm will come to the United States due to immigration.” On the one hand, Mr. Nowrasteh criticizes Sowell for his lack of nuance (i.e., mentioning the Commission in passing while ignoring its flaws), then he tells a whopper himself that assumes facts not in evidence from anything Sowell wrote in his column.

He does not propose a policy solution but because he describes a supposed problem with such a dire tone the reader is meant to feel that he should oppose immigration liberalization.

This is a joke, right? Did we read the same column? No policy solution? Proposing a policy solution is the point of the bloody column–that we should look at which groups’ immigration are most likely to benefit America. Sowell is advocating for what is good for America, not what is good for people who wish to emigrate here.

Did the Dillingham Commission’s fears that new immigrants and their descendants would fail to assimilate come true?

Asians and their descendants, a group viciously criticized by the Dillingham Commission, have culturally assimilated and their rate of economic success exceeds that of other Americans.  You don’t have to take my word for it, just read what Thomas Sowell has written on the issue.  Italians, Jews, and other immigrant groups criticized by the Commission also culturally assimilated and their descendants have been very successful.  The Dillingham Commission was clearly wrong about these immigrant groups.  Immigration restrictions inspired by that Commission imposed large costs on America: We likely lost an opportunity to have at least tens of millions of more productive citizens from Europe, Asian, and elsewhere – unintentionally sentencing many to death.

More of the same. Ho hum.  Guilt by association. The death sentence part is subtle, also.

The Dillingham Commission also claimed that there were just too many people and the economy could not create enough wealth to sustain a high standard of living – a ludicrous proposition thoroughly demolished by Julian Simon.  With a population of just over 92 million people in 1910, the Commission concluded that too much immigration was slowing America’s economic growth and that large numbers of new people were not necessary for industrialization because that phase of economic expansion was behind us … in 1910.  Such grandiose claims of the future that call for government intervention could only come from the self-proclaimed anointed.

And so on, ad nauseum. Sowell is a hypocrite. Got it. 10-4. Message received, over and over and over again.

The Dillingham Commission was severely criticized when it was released and was not accepted as fact as Sowell claimed.  A criticism of the report famously questioned its entire statistical methodology and conclusions.  That criticism, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, dismissed the “popular delusion” that immigrants displace American workers by writing: “[i]n the long run … supply and demand approximately balance each other.”  Just as then, similar disagreements have continued to this day over other immigration studies.

In the long run, we’re all dead.

(Sorry, I apparently don’t have the same talent for repeating myself while appearing not to repeat myself that Mr. Nowrasteh obviously does.)

The Dillingham Commission’s immigration restrictionist recommendations were based on poor statistical methods, an undue faith in the ability of Progressive social-reforms to guide social development, and a rejection of labor market economics.  The Dillingham Commission was not an honest study to determine the facts of immigration as Professor Sowell described.

OK, let’s go back and re-read what Sowell said:

A hundred years ago, the immigration controversies of that era were discussed in the context of innumerable facts about particular immigrant groups. Many of those facts were published in a huge, multi-volume 1911 study by a commission headed by Senator William P. Dillingham.

That and other studies of the time presented hard data on such things as which groups’ children were doing well in school and which were not; which groups had high crime rates or high rates of alcoholism, and which groups were over-represented among people living on the dole.

There are facts that can be known about immigrant groups. Many of the then extant facts were published in a 1911 study. Did Sowell paint that study out to be, as a work, the end all and be all of immigration metrics? No, he used it as a jumping-off point, saying that there were facts in the study.

The extrapolation from that quoted section to the implication that Sowell is a hypocritical fellow-traveler of early-20th Century Progs is creative, but pretty much nonsense.

Second, Sowell brings up the Boston terror attack as a warning against immigration of people with cultures that are incompatible with Western values.  He has a point about security, but it’s not that immigration should be curtailed.  As much as this is painful to consider, some criminals and terrorists will always be able to sneak in regardless of our immigration policy.  The question is not whether we want no criminals or a lot of criminals, the relevant question is: which system will prevent more criminals and terrorists from entering at an acceptable cost?

People are going to commit crime anyway, so why have laws?

Oh wait, I extrapolated. It’s rubbing off on me.

A legal system that prevented all immigration and tourism would prevent some criminals from coming in and could have prevented the Boston terror attack, but at a gargantuan economic cost not to mention the violation of individual liberties such a policy would entail.  But a more open immigration system that screens people for criminality but lets peaceful people through will reduce the size of the haystack and make it easier for law and immigration enforcement to catch the criminal and terrorist needles.  Public policy should be based on facts and not anecdotes.  There is evidence that there should additional screenings and investigations for some immigrants but that does not mean blanket bans on the immigration of certain ethnic or religious groups should be instituted.

First sentence: false dichotomy.

Second sentence: If we let more people in, it will be easier to filter out criminals? What?

Third sentence: Non sequitur.

Fourth sentence: Straw man argument and false dichotomy.

Thomas Sowell’s trust in the findings of a Progressive immigration commission that recommended massive government interventions based on manipulated statistics – a near textbook example of a Teflon prophet – is in blaring contrast to the rest of his work that produces many reasons to be skeptical of such schemes.  In 100 years, will Americans look back fondly on today’s immigrants and their successful assimilation as they have in other periods of American history?  Or will this be the first time that immigrants and their descendants don’t become Americans?  Given the rapid rate of assimilation across the board, with varying rates of success, there is little to distinguish today’s immigration experience from that of our forefathers.

If Mr. Nowrasteh thought he was making a convincing argument for a libertarian transnational free flow of labor, I missed it.


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