The Agenda

Ron Unz on Immigration, Part I: Thoughts on Paleoconservatism

Ron Unz has written a very important essay on immigration for The American Conservative, a magazine identified with paleoconservatism.  Unz makes a number of convincing points, though I can’t say I’m fully convinced by his argument, or at least not yet. He raises a number of points that relate to themes we’ve addressed in this space. Because Unz’s article is so consistently thought-provoking, I’m going to write several posts on it. I might also write a column on the subject. This first post is very simple. Go read it. Here is the link. I downloaded the PDF so I could read it on my tablet, which I recommend as the essay rewards your sustained attention.

Before I get into the article itself, I want to briefly discuss paleoconservatism.

Defining paleoconservatism is tricky, in part because the range of thinkers who identify with it, and more to the point who are identified with it by others, is very diverse. A good start would be to define it as hybrid tradition. Paleoconservatism is in some sense in continuity with elements of the Old Right, i.e., the various pre-war, pre-New Deal right-of-center political movements that, among other things, advocated economic laissez-faire and strategic independence in foreign policy, a central plank of which was an opposition to military intervention and permanent entangling alliances in Europe. There is a sense in which this Old Right was in keeping with older traditions of American political economy, e.g., the post-Civil War regime that entrusted the Supreme Court with preserving a system of competitive federalism and protecting a free and open national marketplace; that severely constrained the legislative branch, limiting its role to debates over the size of the national tariff and Civil War pensions and wool and mohair subsidies, etc.; and a presidency that was the bulwark of the gold standard. Yet later Old Right thinkers were shaped by the Austrian tradition, and many contemporary paleoconservatives are influenced by the idiosyncratic libertarian-anarchist political philosopher Murray Rothbard, who went through a number of phases in a long and storied career, ranging from an effort to form an alliance with a decentralist New Left and the Black Power movement to a later embrace of Buchananite anti-immigration populism and what we might call a form of white identity politics. 

Fairly or unfairly, paleoconservatism has come to be identified with the idea that non-Hispanic whites share a number of common interests, despite the diversity of this population, and that as their share of the population declines, it is all the more urgent to think seriously about how the demographic structure of the country, specifically the share of the population that derives from the post-1965 wave of non-European immigration, will shape its political economy and its culture. There are certainly some people in the broad tent of paleoconservatism who embrace racialist views, just as there are mainstream conservatives and liberals who, knowingly or otherwise, do the same. My own view is that though I don’t generally share the views commonly associated with paleoconservatives on these questions, it is important to engage in a good-faith conversation about how demographic change has shaped and will continue to shape our society. The failure to engage in this conversation, or the suggestion that it is somehow not legitimate to raise these issues, threatens to narrow our public conversation in such a way that we wind up with a less reasonable, less “reality-based” conversation, and that doesn’t serve anyone’s interests, including the interests of advocates of the continuation of a large immigration influx. 

Several years ago, George Borjas and Lawrence Katz suggested that the wave of undocumented workers that arrived in the United States from 1980 to 2000 may have depressed the wages of high school dropouts by as much as 8.2 percent. Part of the story, of course, is that the proportion fo high school dropouts declined over that time, though not as quickly as perhaps it should have. Moreover, if we assume a surge in capital investment, the wage decrease might have been less, closer to 3.6 percent. The New York Times published an amusing piece at the time that introduced the work of Borjas and Katz and exclusively focused on factors that create the potential for downward revision of their initial estimate, giving no room to factors that would create the potential for upward revision. The core point is that the impact across the entire labor force is different from the impact on high school dropouts. More affluent workers have greater access to certain services that are less-skilled-labor-intensive, which mitigates the overall impact. As Borjas and Katz have made clear, however, it is not unreasonable to pay at least some attention to the distributional impact, and to give a serious accounting of both sides of the story, not just those that would incline us to dismiss the influx of undocumented labor.

At the end of the Borjas and Katz paper, they make the important point that even if all migration from Mexico stopped tomorrow, the influx will continue to shape the trajectory of the American economy for decades to come, as the life prospects of American children of Mexican origin are shaped by the educational attainment levels of their parents and even their grandparents. 

Ron Unz’s article represents a serious attempt to grapple with these issues, and it is free of what we might call “conservative political correctness,” i.e., it takes on ideas dear to the mainstream right as well as the left. So with that out of the way, let’s get into it. 

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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