Fishtown Needs Less Immigration

By Mark Krikorian on September 30, 2016

National Review, September 30, 2016

Charles Murray is a libertarian. We know that because, among other things, he wrote a book titled What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation.

His views on immigration weren't that we should have open borders, as many who call themselves libertarians believe we should, but he acknowledges that he was an enthusiast for high levels of immigration.

Donald Trump has persuaded him to change his mind.

No, it wasn't the brilliance of the billionaire's rhetoric — he still loathes the man and won't vote for him — but, as Murray puts it, "the reaction he has aroused."

At a Center for Immigration Studies panel discussion this week on the replacement of low-skill American workers by immigrants (read the transcript) he said, "I have had to undergo a great deal of rethinking this year about what I make of all this."

Murray — the author of Losing Ground, The Bell Curve, and Coming Apart, among other seminal works – was candid about his earlier libertarian-tinged insouciance about patriotic solidarity:


The thing that has gotten to me over the course of this year and this intense debate has been the idea ... that the citizens of a nation owe something to each other that is over and above our general obligations to our fellow human beings; that there is a sense in which we should take care of our own, our own in this case meaning Americans. ... Before, I rejected that pretty much without thinking.


His comments were in response to a presentation by scholar Jason Richwine on the decline in work among prime-working-age native-born men and how immigrants have served as a backstop or a crutch, enabling employers and society more broadly to avoid grappling with the issue. Richwine's paper didn't look at the reasons for this replacement of the native-born by immigrants (which is driven in part by immigration itself), but merely documented the fact.

To put it in the terms of Murray's book Coming Apart, the people of "Belmont" — his metaphor for today's winners — are doing just fine with today's immigration: "Those of us who are at the top of the heap get some really terrific cheap nannies and some really terrific cheap gardeners," he said.

But mass immigration also allows Belmont to ignore the dysfunction of "Fishtown" — his metaphor for less-skilled Americans who are experiencing social disintegration:


You have a large chunk of people who are dropped out of participation in American society, and there is too much of a readiness on the part of us who are quite fortunate to say, well, that's tough. Okay, we won't let them starve in the streets. We'll have enough welfare for them and all that sort of thing ... but we aren't really going to take care of the problem.


Murray proposes a "grand experiment" to force Belmont to address the problems of Fishtown: "I want to shut down low-skill immigration for a while. ... The notion is this: We will have no good way of knowing how employers will respond until the spigot is cut off. We will have no really good way of knowing the extent to which you will get feedback loops that will un-demoralize a lot of the people who are out of the labor force."

The point of the experiment would be to see whether the increased wages that would be offered, and the other market responses, would be enough to reverse some of the withdrawal from the world of work that Richwine's paper documented, and the social maladies that accompany such withdrawal.

The goal would not necessarily be to maximize the efficiency of labor inputs as to promote social egalitarianism — "egalitarian in the sense of Americans all wanted to see themselves as part of the same class," Murray said. The immigration-enabled bifurcation of society "threatens the very nature of this country as the kind of country we have always wanted ourselves to be."

A quote from President Reagan's last major speech, at the 1992 Republican convention, captures what Murray is talking about: "Whether we come from poverty or wealth; whether we are Afro-American or Irish-American; Christian or Jewish, from big cities or small towns, we are all equal in the eyes of God. But as Americans, that is not enough, we must be equal in the eyes of each other."

Or, as Murray put it at the panel, "it is not enough to live in a wealthy Western advanced society. I want to live in America, and I want to live in America as I think it ought to be thought of."

He acknowledged that his "grand experiment" would have costs and might not, in the end, reverse the alarming bifurcation of our society. But he also suggested that it would be more than just an experiment. He now views mass low-skilled immigration as inconsistent with a classically liberal society: "Libertarian principles only work when the playing field is pretty damn fair. And I think the low-skill immigration — this is where I really, really change — I think the low-skill immigration deforms a great many of the processes that are required to make the free-enterprise, free-market system that I like work."

Later he was even more explicit: "I am still in favor of the free market for wages. ... I'm in favor of all kinds of aspects of the free market. Do I feel that you are living in a market in which market forces are really at work if you have an unending supply of people who are willing to work for low wages? I don't think so."

At the end of the discussion, Murray said: "Restrictions on low-skill immigration is an idea whose time has come." Welcome to the fight, Charles. This time I know our side will win.