Immigration and the Future of the United States

How can the U.S. maintain its standard of living, and its position of world leadership (technological, economic, and political)? Obviously it’s getting harder, partly because we’ve been so successful at sharing our free enterprise economic model with the world (a model that we itself inherited from others, though we improved on it), so that countries that once couldn’t effectively compete with us economically now can compete. And though the surge in international trade benefits us as consumers — and often as producers — as well as competing with our producers, competing with lower-wage countries has naturally gotten harder as international trade has gotten freed up.

Of course, we might be able to improve our competitiveness in various ways, such as improving our educational system, removing counterproductive regulations and taxes, and so on. But again these sort of ideas can be copied by our competitors — to everyone’s aggregate benefit, but in a way that reduces our leadership position.

We do, however, have one huge advantage over many countries that is hard to compete with: We have a long-term history of political freedom, political stability, economic freedom, military security, and relative freedom from corruption. This is something that other countries can’t reliably copy, partly because it takes a long time to establish relatively certain protections along these lines.

Moreover, I think that on balance size does matter when it comes to national influence. China and India are especially important players partly (though of course not solely) because they’re so big, and we have long benefited from this as well. A materially larger population would obviously cause density problems, including in places like my own Los Angeles, but I suspect that it is on balance something that would help the country as a whole.

This suggests that one of the most valuable competitive advantages we have is our ability to allow immigration by people who we think are going to add to our national prosperity — whether wealthy investors, skilled knowledge workers, or industrious laborers. We’ve done it before, and it seems likely we can keep doing it for quite a while into the future, especially since political, economic, and military instability continue to be serious threats in much of the world.

Such immigration will indeed likely cause some problems for some, whether because some places get more crowded, because some occupations get more competitive, or for various other reasons. But my sense is that substantially increased immigration (albeit increased in a somewhat targeted fashion) will improve the welfare of the nation as a whole. And I’d go further and say that it is likely necessary, and not just desirable, if we want to maintain (to the extent possible) our edge over others.

One of the unfortunate things about recent illegal immigration debates, it seems to me, has been that they have distracted from the much more important debate about how we can increase — perhaps dramatically increase — legal immigration in a way to maximize net benefit for the nation. To some extent, it is inevitable that we will constantly have competitors who are close to our level of prosperity, at least so long as other countries can avoid bombing each other into rubble (which is one of the things that contributed to our huge advantage shortly after World War II) or choosing ridiculously ineffective economic policies (which helped to contribute to our huge advantage during the Cold War). But to the extent that we want to stay ahead, or even keep up, for as long as possible, it seems to me that we have to use the strongest advantage we have: being a great place for productive people to live.

This isn’t even near my core area of expertise, so perhaps I’m mistaken on this; and it’s also rather obvious in certain ways — others have said it before. But at the same time, however obvious it may be, it seems to me that political leaders are not focusing much on it. I think it’s about time they did.