Most New Yorkers won’t notice, concerned as they are with water, electricity, and the rat menace, but on Thursday the New York Times op-ed page published one of its sillier paeans to mass immigration. In “Innovative Immigrants“, Harvard Business School professor Thomas McCraw argues that we should amnesty 12 million illegal aliens because Alexander Hamilton was born in St. Croix. Really. The piece of basically a promo for McCraw’s new history book, The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy, which sounds quite interesting. I’m listening to Cherow’s first-class life of Washington now, and may pick this one up next.
But to extrapolate from Gallatin’s arranging the financing for the Louisiana Purchase to an imperative for today’s “comprehensive immigration reform” is implausible, to say the least. The professor notes that:
Compared with the native-born, who have extended families and lifelong social and commercial relationships, immigrants without such ties — without businesses to inherit or family property to protect — are in some ways better prepared to play the innovator’s role.
Of course, so are Americans “without businesses to inherit or family property to protect”, like, say, Ben Franklin, Robert Fulton, Cyrus McCormick, Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, Samuel Colt, Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers, Charles Goodyear, Bill Hewlett, Dave Packard, Sam Walton, Steve Wozniak, Ray Kroc, et al.
A hundred academic monographs could not prove that immigrants are more innovative than native-born Americans, because each spurs the other on. Innovations by the blended population were, and still are, integral to the economic growth of the United States.
This “each spurs the other on” stuff is just sentimentalist happy talk. I’m delighted that Andrew Carnegie got rich, but what this kind of rhapsodizing misses is that there were lots of immigrant entrepreneurs at various times because there were lots of immigrants. And while it may be impossible to measure such things for the past, we have some reasonably good data now, and it shows that immigrants as a whole are no more likely to be self-employed, as a metric for entrepreneurship, than the native-born. The March 2011 Current Population Survey, conducted by the Census Bureau, finds that immigrants and the native-born have almost identical rates of self-employment, 11.5% and 11.7%, respectively, and have roughly the same self-employment income.
What’s often hidden in the babble about immigrants bubbling with entrepreneurship is that different groups of immigrants have very different characteristics. The overall self-employment rate for immigrants referenced above masks the fact that it is highest among immigrants from Europe and the Middle East, and lowest among those from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. But since drawing attention to such distinctions would be awkward for a Harvard professor writing in the Times, he has to pretend that “comprehensive immigration reform” for illegal aliens, 80 percent of whom are from Mexico and Central America, is somehow related to his stories of (or indirect references to) immigrant innovators, not a single one of whom is from Latin America.
I’m opposed, genuinely and firmly, to any kind of ethnic or national-origins criteria for immigration. But the logical conclusion of such hosannas to immigrant innovation is that we should keep out Latin Americans and let in only those from elsewhere. I’m sure McCraw would reject such a conclusion, and good for him. But then what’s the point of his piece?