The Corner

Frum’s Transformation

Why haven’t you read David Frum’s latest article, “How I Rethought Immigration,” in the June 25 issue of National Review

What’s that? You don’t subscribe to NRODT? What a shame, because Frum’s article is one of the very best I’ve read on immigration. Just this once, I’ll summarize. But in future, do subscribe, because this is the sort of thing you’re missing.

Frum’s “How I Rethought Immigration” tells the story of a debate within a single man’s soul–which also happens to be the ultimate version of a WSJ-NR immigration smackdown. That’s because Frum confessional piece describes his transformation from a pro-open-borders member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board into an immigration-skeptical editor at National Review.

As Frum tells it, he only gradually came to recognize the taken-for-granted cultural element in the immigration success stories he’d witnessed growing up. When The Wall Street Journal put Frum on the income inequality beat (from 1989-1991), he was surprised to learn that the latest wave of immigrants and their children weren’t succeeding. That meant assimilation and advancement weren’t automatic outcomes of immigration, but complex, difficult-to-replicate cultural achievements instead.

Frum discovered that the latest wave of immigrants were actually expanding the welfare state, driving down low-skill wages, and cutting into America’s competitiveness–to the point where the net economic gains from immigration virtually disappeared (even if the benefits were disproportionately enjoyed by immigrants themselves, and folks at the top of society). Frum was repelled by anti-immigrant sentiment based on race, yet he didn’t let that blind him to the downside of immigration itself.

So Frum began with the knowledge of markets rightly treasured by WSJ, yet gradually came to recognize the cultural dimension of the immigrant labor market–and a different side of the economic equation as well. Most of all, Frum learned to differentiate between his still powerful belief in the free movement of goods and capital across international borders and his attitude toward the international movement of people.

That shouldn’t surprise us, since people aren’t mere tradable goods. The cultural prerequisites of democratic capitalism are given life by real human beings. So when you bring new people into your society, you’re potentially working a root transformation in what that society is–and in how (and whether) democratic capitalism works there. Immigration uniquely reveals the underlying dependence of markets themselves on cultural foundations. (Now subscribe and read the original.)


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