Sowell on Immigration, evidence?

Today I listened to this podcast with Thomas Sowell and Russ Roberts. At the end, Sowell gives some arguments against relatively open borders. I may be biased because of my own opinion on the subject, but he didn't seem to have as strong as an argument as in previous subjects in the podcast. In particular, he made an empirical claim- that our culture can't handle this many immigrants (at least from certain areas), but didn't provide any evidence. Then it struck me, is Theophanes' link to the article on the amount of americans in prisons evidence for Sowell's claim? To add to this, Daniel D'Amico points out that this number has been increasing in recent years.

It seems plausible that if a relatively high proportion prisoners are (legal) immigrants, then they are causing problems within our culture and our institutions. If this is the case, we should probably be wary because capitalism does depend, to a large extent, on the institutional and cultural foundation we have in the west.

It seems more plausible to me that this is a sign of the drug war or if it is a sign of our slowly crumbling culture, it's crumbling from within because of certain structural problems that help churn out people who are dissillusioned with capitalism and western values for whatever reason. In particular, I'm thinking of inner cities here.

The big question is, what does the evidence say? Can anyone think of/find anything relevant?


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I recently listened to the

I recently listened to the same podcast as well, and agree that what had been a great podcast declined somewhat when Sowell began talking about immigration. The interesting thing is that right after this podcast I listened to the one about super crunching, and Russ Robert's point that often researchers don't stop looking at the data until they've found a way to make them match their bias. I didn't get the "a ha!" moment until just now, however.

The connection of immigrant

The connection of immigrant assimilation to the prison population is quite interesting.


Arthur Delivers

For those of you too lazy to click the link, the paper is gated, but we get the abstract:


Among 18-40 year old men in the United States, immigrants are less
likely to be institutionalized than the native-born, and much less
likely to be institutionalized than native-born men with similar
demographic characteristics. Furthermore, earlier immigrants are more
likely to be institutionalized than more recent immigrants. Although
all immigrant cohorts appear to assimilate toward the higher
institutionalization rates of the native-born as time in the country
increases, recent immigrants do not increase their institutionalization
rates as quickly as one would predict from the experience of earlier
immigrant cohorts. These results are the opposite of what one would
predict from the literature on immigrant earnings, where earlier
immigrants are typically found to have better permanent labor market


This suggests that bringing immigrants over may actually have a positive impact on our culture. If any cultural crumbling is going on, it must be going on from within.* This is only one piece of evidence of course, so we can't be very certain.

*Should we add the public school/university system to the list of suspects? Is our culture actually in trouble, as Sowel suggests?


Drug war

Now I'm wondering what happens when we control for the drug war. If subtract people who are institutionalized for drugs alone, are immigrants still less likely to be institutionalized? My intuition is that being imprisoned for drugs alone doesn't really reflect whether someone is culturally western, so this could skew the numbers, but I may be wrong. I suspect no one has run these numbers. Maybe I should shut up about it and hoard the idea until I get to grad school and need a dissertation idea...


It's free if you're from a

It's free if you're from a developping country. Like Argentina. Yahoo mail argentina also happens to be free. ( / quitesimple)


It doesn't suffice when talking about the impact of immigration in criminality to just compare immigrants with the native-born, see that immigrants commit fewer crimes, and say that immigration has no impact on crime.

I can easily tell a different story, that goes like this: An influx of immigrants into American cities have lowered the wages of urban residents and other poor and displacing them in the labor force. As a result, they have less outside options (how many middle class kids become burglars?) and crime results.

(I'm not saying I believe that, in fact I don't, but the theory is not falsifiable from studies like this, and it doesn't strike me as utterly insane.)

It may make libertarians very uncomfortable (it doesn't please me one bit), but there's pretty persuasive evidence (here's a very nice survey of Robert Putnam's work) that increasing diversity has deleterious effects on the kinds of community-building activity and trust that we would normally trust to lower criminality. Maybe the studies are wrong, but sticking our fingers in our ears and saying that open borders wouldn't come accompanied by problems is dishonest.

Turns out I heard a talk by

Turns out I heard a talk by economisy Benjamin Powell yesterday on that matter, he claims according to various studies the only group whose wage has been found to beĀ  significantly negatively impacted by immigration is high-school dropouts, the worst estimate showing their wage to be 6% lower.

Lower bound

Yeah, the worst I ever heard was 8% declines in unskilled wages. Like I said, it's not really a story I buy, but I don't think it's completely crazy that having your economic group's wage decline in a time of global prosperity might have some less-than-desireable side effects.

The black-white wage gap has not declined in the last 30 years or so. Isn't it possible immigration is a part of that, and if so, shouldn't we talk about it?

Talk about unpersuasive

I can easily tell a different story, that goes like this [...]

Maybe so, but as ammunition in the fight against immigration it has a much lower caliber. It's a lot easier to take the moral high ground when the immigrants are the ones actually committing the crimes. If your argument is that the immigrants' pursuit of an honest living is causing natives to turn to crime, then your argument has just gotten most of the air taken out of it, because this line of argument gets its fuel from moral outrage, and moral outrage tends to be directed at the actual criminals.

Besides which, the more baroque your argument, the more indirect your postulated chain of cause and effect, the less inherently believable it is.

It may make libertarians very uncomfortable [...] that increasing diversity has deleterious effects on [...] community

Eh, not really. Racial or cultural integration per se is neither libertarian nor anti-libertarian. If people choose to segregate themselves, or to integrate themselves, in both cases they are exercising free choice. Libertarians as libertarians oppose government interference in this in either direction: either in the direction of forced integration, or in the direction of forced segregation. (Of course, libertarians are not just libertarians and so as individuals they may deplore voluntary self-segregation - or, for that matter, voluntary self-integration; libertarianism has the capacity to coexist comfortably in the same mind with white separatism as long as the white separatism does not advocate forced segregation.)

Besides which, one of the goals of the advocates of integration, or at least of some of them, is not sustaining the "diversity" but "melting" the diverse groups into a single culture. And anyway, it's inevitable: the only way to maintain cultural diversity in the long run is to segregate populations.


My point isn't about the moral high ground. It's about answering the question "What would have happened to crime rates if immigration policy had been different?" That's a counterfactual, and so, by definition, unobservable.

What I'm arguing against is making inference using the identifying assumption that native-born crime rates would have been unchanged without at least thinking about it. It's also plausible to me (though somewhat less so) that lower immigration would have led to weaker economic performance which would have led to more native-born crime.

Besides which, the more baroque your argument, the more indirect
your postulated chain of cause and effect, the less inherently
believable it is.

Agreed, but second-order effects matter, and we shouldn't be selective when we use them. For example, tax rates. Most libertarians (correctly) argue that when looking at a tax increase, you can't just robotically assume people work the same and get the new revenue. People's behavior changes. Now, that's a slightly less "baroque" mechanism than mine, but indirect and second order it certainly is.

It's not about morality, it's about facing up to human nature and empirical findings, and there's a reluctance among everyone to do so. To give another immigration-related example, there's pretty good evidence that increasing diversity makes people less willing to supoprt Scandanavian-style welfare systems. Left-liberals can of course still support increased immigration, but if they don't at least acknowledge the argument that it might conceviably make their preferered government policies less likely to be enacted, that's a mistake.


I'll be faulted for leaping to conclusions about causation, but my libertarian hunch is always that things break when force is used to interfere with willing buyers and sellers solving each others problems.

So I would suspect that what is happening is that official low-wage jobs are being destroyed by the government through pay-roll taxes, mandated health insurance, and minimum wage laws. Those who would take these jobs turn instead to welfare or crime (either real crime or nominal crime like drug dealing, prostitution, or performing gay marriages).

This creates a black market for low wage labor. Illegal immigrants see the opportunity and fill in the gap. Only those who are interested in performing low-wage labor cross the border; if they were willing to make their livings as criminals, they could be criminals in Mexico and earn as much with less risk than if they entered the US.

Why not to shoot for "economic performance"

"It's also plausible to me (though somewhat less so) that lower
immigration would have led to weaker economic performance which would
have led to more native-born crime."

Why should it run in the direction you thought?

Weaker economic performance because there are less people, meaning more capital per person (and land is capital), could mean higher living standards. A billion starving Chinese certainly has better "economic performance" than some tiny country with a decent standard of living, that's if GDP is your criteria, but it's not something to aim at. So adding immigrants could lower the standard of living and lead to more crime. Especially if those immigrants are low education/low skill workers who have little value as human capital.

It doesn't suffice when

It doesn't suffice when talking about the impact of immigration in
criminality to just compare immigrants with the native-born, see that
immigrants commit fewer crimes, and say that immigration has no impact
on crime.

Of course. Maybe I wasn't clear, but I didn't claim that the evidence covered every possible situation. I merely said it was suggestive.

It may make libertarians very uncomfortable...

Higher immigration and an increasingly diverse nation doesn't necessarily mean increasingly diverse communities. A priori, I find it more plausible that culturally and racially similar people will tend to group together into their own communities than the 'melting pot' scenario. If the melting pot scenario is true, in a long enough time horizon there might only be one race and one culture anyway, for better or worse.