Conservatism and Immigration, By Peter Brimelow, COMMENTARY, November , 1995
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Commentary, November 1995

"The struggle of reason against authority has ended in what appears now to be a decisive and permanent victory for liberty," wrote the historian J.B. Bury in The History of the Freedom of Thought. That was in 1913. Today, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, not just the U.S. but apparently the entire world is going through a burst of free-market, classical liberal triumphalism very similar to the 1890's. You have to be uneasily aware that the previous burst ended, totally unexpectedly, in World War I and the terrible first half of the 20th century. And that is even apart from the signs of fraying in the American national project to which the editors allude.

I believe, however, that there is an objective basis for much of this free-market triumphalism in the U.S. All levels of American government now consume well over a third of economic output. The Reagan years contained but did not significantly reverse this government grab. Under Bush, it started up again. So government is now vastly more intrusive, its flaws are much more apparent, and it has many more enemies than before the New Deal, when it consumed—incredibly—not much more than a fortieth of economic output.

I think this means the pendulum will continue to swing against statism for very long me. Similarly, in Victorian Britain it took virtually the entire 19th century to get the government's share down from its surprisingly high levels at the end of the Napoleonic war to below a tenth of economic output in 1890. And, just as in Victorian England, there will be decades of reform and decades of reaction. Government has friends as well as enermies. They will fight. But the underlying trend will be clear.

And this will have an effect, not controlling but influential, on the intellectual and cultural superstructure. Simply put, the spontaneous and private will have the intellectual and moral edge over the engineered, public, and politicized.

This perspective also causes me to be somewhat more relaxed about the conservative resurgence represented by the Republican Congress and the Contract With America. I expect it to fail. But I expect it to resurge again. Similarly the Reagan revolution "failed," but confounded predictions and reinvented itself as the Gingrich revolution. None of this means that key individuals involved are not responsible, and culpable, for progress, or the lack thereof. But they are more ephemeral, transitional figures than they may appear to contemporary observers (or to themselves).

I am not at all relaxed, however, about problems posed to the American national project by what the editors call, quite accurately, "unchecked immigration." The facts here are compelling. But they are not widely understood because of the romantic haze, intellectual inertia, and downright dishonesty that surrounds the subject.

The 1965 Immigration Act triggered an influx of historically high proportions, particularly compared to current U.S. birth rates. Thus the Census Bureau projects that Americans, left to themselves, are stabilizing their population around 250 to 260 million. But the government is in effect second-guessing them through immigration policy. If present trends continue, the U.S. population will reach 390 million by 2050. More than 130 million will be post-1970 immigrants and their descendants. Because the 1965 Act arbitrarily choked off immigration from Europe, this influx has been almost all from the third world. So by 2050, whites, who were 90 percent of the population as recently as 1960, will be on the verge of becoming a minority.

This is a demographic transformation without precedent in the history of the world. It is incumbent on those who favor it to explain what makes them think it is going to work—and why they want to transform the American nation as it had evolved by 1965.

Because the new arrangements are clearly not working at the moment. The 1990 Census revealed that native-born Americans, both black and white, were fleeing the immigrant-favored areas, where they were being replaced on an almost one-for-one basis by immigrants, and going to entirely separate sections of the country—whites to the white heartland of the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, and so on; blacks to the black areas of the so on.

The country is coming apart ethnically under the impact of the enormous influx. This must ultimately raise what might be called the National Question: is America still that interlacing of ethnicity and culture that we call a nation—and can the American nation-state, the political expression of that nation, survive?

All of the unraveling that the editors instance—multiculturalism, dissolution of shared values, increased stratification—is exacerbated, at the very least, by immigration. This is not to say that immigration necessarily caused these policies, a point immigration enthusiasts invariably miss. "The fault, dear Peter, lies not in our immigrants but in ourselves," New York Post columnist Maggie Gallagher wrote in what was one of the nicer reactions to my arguments. But here's the rub: if there is a rainstorm when you have a cold, you stay indoors.

Unless there is another pause for assimilation, as there have been many times in the past, immigration will add to America's latent sectionalism and ultimately break the country up like the late Roman empire—a crisis as utterly unexpected as World War I by the American political elite, both Left and Right.

Illegal immigration should be ended with a second Operation Wetback, as the Eisenhower administration ended the similar illegal-immigration crisis of the 1950's: seal the borders, deport the illegals already here. Legal immigration should be halted with a five- or ten-year moratorium: no net immigration, with admissions for hardship cases or needed skills balancing the 200,000 legal residents who leave each year. During that moratorium, there should be a debate in which Americans would be asked what they want—as they have not yet been. Immigration might then be resumed, at moderate levels, with an emphasis on skills, and on evidence of cultural compatibility such as speaking English.

As a contributor and long-time subscriber to Commentary, I may say it is a reproach that this position has been abandoned to presidential candidate Pat Buchanan.


Peter Brimelow is a senior editor of National Review and Forbes and the author of Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster (Random House).

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