Interview with David Azerrad and Alex Nowrasteh

David Azerrad and Alex Nowrasteh speak at the Firing Line Debate on "Merit Based Immigration" on February 20, 2020.

On February 20, 2020, the Buckley Program hosted a Firing Line Debate with David Azerrad and Alex Nowrasteh on “Merit Based Immigration.” Dr. Azerrad is currently an assistant professor at Hillsdale College and was formerly the director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics and an AWC Family Foundation Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Mr. Nowrasteh is the current director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mathis Bitton: I would like to start with your perspective on fusionism. As you know, a growing portion of the conservative movement has become skeptical of – if not opposed to – the effects capitalism may have on our culture. Capitalism is said to destroy rural communities that best exemplify conservative values, promote cultural globalization, atomize and individualize, reward utility as opposed to virtue, and so on. Do you believe that it is time to re-consider the age-old alliance between libertarians and conservatives?

David Azerrad: Fusionism, as it came to be defined by the likes of Bill Buckley, is untenable. It emerged as a tactical alliance between two philosophies – libertarianism and conservatism – that have very little in common. Of course, at the time, the alliance was justified by a common enemy: the specter of communism. But just as the specter vanished in the dustbin of history in 1989, so the alliance has far outlasted its purpose. I simply cannot understand how “free-market fundamentalists” and traditionalists could possibly cohabit in the long run. The way in which conservatives think about moral and cultural anthropology, the way in which they think about nations, the way in which they value tradition community, all the core values that conservatives hold dear are simply antithetical to a world of markets, consumers, and sellers. Historically, traditional conservatives have accepted to be dwarfed by their more libertarian counterparts, who have set the tone for the whole rhetorical flavor of the American conservative movement. I would put it as follows: American conservatives have come to speak “libertarianese.” Their default ideological setting is more individual liberty and less government, no matter what this might mean – with the notable exception of military matters. The government is inherently bad, it is the root of all evil, and it should be mistrusted on everything and anything. This distrust is coupled with a blindly unwarranted trust in the private sector. What kind of conservative looks at Silicon Valley and thinks: “hey, there is nothing to worry about – the free market operates!”. I simply do not buy this kind of total embrace of fusionist ideals. Of course, this is not to say that markets or capitalism do no matter. Markets have historically proven to be incredibly efficient, and they constitute a central part of what makes America America. The United States has always been, and continues to be, a commercial Republic. Capitalism is in its DNA. But this need not mean that markets ought not to be subordinated to the common political good. I sit on the board of a new of a new organization, American Compass, whose mission statement is “to restore an economic consensus that emphasizes the importance of family, community, and industry to the nation’s liberty and prosperity.” It is about recovering a tradition of conservative political economy that has tragically disappeared, one that puts markets at the service of nations and traditions – not the other way around.

MB: Do you think that President Trump is pushing the party in the direction of a more “conservative” political economy? Practically speaking, do you think that, were Trump to win in 2020, the Republican Party would embrace a more national-populist kind of economic rhetoric?

DA: Most definitely. While I may not agree with every last tweet or every last gaffe, I certainly share the broad thrust of Trumpism. What he ran on, and what he tries to govern on, is to recognize that the center of gravity of the Republican Party should be the working class and the middle class – not their entrepreneurial counterparts. This is not to say that entrepreneurs are “enemies” – although wealthy people have, by and large, found a home in the Democratic Party. But the prioritization of disenfranchised voters over affluent élites is one that structures Trump’s domestic policy. Another major aspect is the recalibration of American foreign policy to rein in the excesses of neo-conservatism and its nation-building failures, and to assert the central importance of immigration. Immigration is not just another issue or policy debate. It is inextricably tied to the future of the country, one that American deeply care about, but one that the major parties had deserted for far too long. I view Trump as seeing a lane wide open in American politics. The American people, broadly speaking, are somewhat socially conservative, and like some big-government. Nobody was properly speaking to them until the emergence of Trump. And not only was he right to do so, but the Republican Party itself should – and will – get on board. In a better world, even the Democrats would get closer to this kind of position and start to actually cater for the well-being of the population at large.

MB: You share a certain ideological commonality with President Trump. Do you also think that populism itself is compatible with the institutions and practices of liberal democracy?

DA: It all depends on what you mean by populism. Populism is a word that general has negative connotations, and it has come to represent an impatient desire to channel the will of the people through some kind of strong leader. To me, the basic claim is that the American people are being short-chained by the élite. I may be sympathetic to the general sentiment, but I would add two crucial qualifications. The first is that I do not romanticize the virtue of the people. Politicians who run for office may need to flatter the ego of the populace, but I am not in that business. We should consider the short-comings of the masses and stop idealizing them. Second, we need élites. We need talented, accomplished, smart people to run the country and its institutions. I by no means want to eliminate élites. I simply want better élites. My pitch does therefore not belong in the “populist” category; I do not want to give power to the people for its own sake. I would much rather have a system which produces élites who are more patriotic, who are more sympathetic to the American people, who are educated and not credentialed, who distinguished themselves through some form of service. I just look at our élites today and I find them utterly unimpressive. The only virtue they showcase is a capacity to work hard.

MB: On that note; during the debate, you declared that “America cannot even assimilate Americans,” pointing to the failures of the education system. Would you be in favour of some kind of standardized education, or some kind of standardized national history and/or civics curriculum?

DA: The problem I have with this proposal is that, quite frankly, conservatives have lost the so-called “education debate.” Ours is a federated Republic, unlike our European counterparts. We have to account for the fact that historically, education has been left to the states’ discretion. While the creation of the Department of Education has led to more federal involvement, I certainly would not call that a positive thing. First, education should never be centralized in Washington, D.C. Second, even if we were to set standards, the country by and large is so liberal that these standards would not be respected in any meaningful way. School choice is the optimal way to give people a way out of the system, fight against centralization, and advance Americanism.

MB: Is there any kind of remedy to make American élites “better”?

DA: I don’t know. In a sense, what I am asking for is rather reasonable: to have élites who have sympathy for their countrymen and –women even if they did not graduate from a prestigious college, even if they have guns, even if they are practicing Christians, even if they are ordinary Americans. This should not be an insane demand. But I have a hard time seeing how we ought to re-develop this kind of citizenship, particularly because the phenomenon of “disconnected élites” is one that is observable everywhere across the West and beyond. This detachment is tied to the rise of cultural globalization and inter-connectedness. British journalist David Goodhart wrote a book in which he distinguishes the “somewheres” from the “everywheres.” The “somewheres” are those who are rooted in a particular space and culture, and the “everywheres” are the élites who can bounce from Deutsche Bank in New York to Deutsche Bank in Paris, to Deutsche Bank in London, to Deutsche Bank in Singapore. They have become “citizens of the world,” and I’m afraid there is no going back.

MB: Thank you so much for answering our questions, Dr. Azerrad.

Alex Nowrasteh at the Firing Line Debate on “Merit Based Immigration” on February 20, 2020

Drew Grinde: I was doing research for this interview and I discovered that your research and beliefs on immigration mimic much of what I believe about immigration.

Alex Nowrasteh: I try to frame immigration from the perspective that if people who appreciate American tradition and the Constitutional system align with allowing freer immigration, then everything will appreciate. So often people look at immigration as if it is like a charity, or some left-wing idea, and it is not.

DG: You recently stated in a video that a big part of the divide regarding immigration is in the essence of partisan politics. It is not common that those making vehement arguments against immigration are actually looking into the economic benefits or social implications of their situations at their last home countries. Our society does not seem to care about foreign politics enough to gain the necessary sympathy that would come from seeing what is going on in their countries. We would develop more understanding if we accepted how institutionally poor and tragically unstable the places some of these immigrants are migrating from.

AN: Absolutely, I love the United States. I frankly don’t understand why all people don’t want to become American! (laughs). I like a big, welcoming country to people all over the world. That is what makes us different. American society has never been homogenous like many Americans and Trump supporters want it to be. It is as if they are trying to recreate European style nation-state, and it is not going to work. We are all descendants of immigrants, we are all immigrants ourselves, and this is what makes us exemplary against the world.

DG: I have been to Africa, London, Amsterdam, and heard much about homogenized places such as Japan and you do not see the type of multiculturalist, diverse settings like we have here in the U.S. I do believe we are more accepting of foreigners than most countries are. But we are not above rallying around people like Trump to make and forgetting who we are as we fall into a place of spite against ‘outsiders.’

AN: Absolutely. [laughs]

DG: If you were to list 3 primary benefits to opening up borders than they currently are, what would they be?

AN: The economic benefits of increased immigration are extraordinary. They are mutually beneficial for Americans and for immigrants, and for the U.S. economy. This is the main point I like to make. All of the other supposed downsides that people talk about – such as claiming they do not assimilate, they commit more crimes than U.S. citizens, they are all terrorists – are just not true. They are less likely to be criminals. They and their kids assimilate very well, just as immigrants did 100 years ago. They become Americans. Immigrants make the United States a wealthier, better, and larger country.

DG: It definitely can make us a more open-minded country. It seems practical that if you make the risk to come to America with your family, against all biases, you are incentivized to be honest and avoid committing crimes. It is just a stigma.

AN: It is just an unfounded stereotype. But that is the nature of political debate. People use bad social science, and just form an opinion or even worse just pick a politician and follow whatever he says.

DG: When you think of an ideal policy model regarding immigration in the U.S., you focus on economics primarily. What about for the people that do not have an economic mind. Or may not even care.

AN: I think it is important to talk about American principles, history, our traditions, the way this country was built, and allude to the fact that all our our ancestors came here through past immigration systems. Trying to limit this is like closing the door after you get in. Immigration worked well in the past, it is working now (although we have too many restrictions on it), and there is no reason to take a tremendous hit and close it off. Most of the downsides that people tend to talk about do not exist.

DG: As I was reading your paper about immigrants from Venezuela incentivizing and influencing the liberalization of liberal markets in surrounding countries, it made me wonder if this is something that the U.S. can provide a model of, especially if it were to open borders even more and then illuminate the economic growth that results from liberalized labor markets. Do you believe there are too many disparities between regions to let us serve as a model?

AN: I do believe it would help. I think every country should liberalize its economy. There is a lot of evidence that when countries face a large shock fo immigration, they tend to liberalize. Rather than immigration being the way the U.S. will turn into a socialist economy that so many people want nowadays, it would actually do the opposite. Labor is one of the four economic factors of production – land, labor, capital, entrepreneurship. These are the things that are required for economic production to take place, so liberalizing the flow of workers is a tremendous pro-capitalist policy by itself.

DG: I like to think that these same immigrants that are willing to pick up and come to the U.S. show that they are willing to do whatever it takes to make it. As far as entrepreneurship goes, these immigrants have the mindset for it already, and they can flourish with the United States’ protection of property rights.

AN: Immigrants are twice as likely to start a business than native born Americans, they are more likely to work in high technology fields, they are more likely to patent, and overall more likely to be innovators and entrepreneurs. Immigrating in itself is an entrepreneurial activity. Being willing to say goodbye to one’s home country that they grew up with is a mindset that is uncommon and extraordinarily valuable.

DG: Yes, I agree. If we nourish what they have to offer, they will provide great benefit to us and of course we will provide the same to them.

AN: People don’t seem to understand that immigration can be mutually beneficial for Americans and for immigrants themselves. People tend to have a zero-sum mindset. They think that more people means that we need to spread the same amount of wealth among a larger number of people, and therefore we would be poorer. But immigrants are not just mouths that need to be fed. They have hands, brains, and minds that create a lot more goods and services than they consume.

DG: There are a lot of intangible benefits with increased immigration. You mentioning zero-sum thinking made me want to allude to a question I wanted to make sure I fit in here. What do you believe is the biggest crisis the international system faces today or in the next 2-3 decades?

AN: The biggest thing we are going to face is the bankruptcy of American entitlement programs. Social Security and Medicare programs continue to run deficits and they are only going to get larger. Interesting enough, immigration helps reduce these problems substantially. Just a 33% increase in immigration lowers Social Security’s deficits by 10% in the next 50 years because we have more workers here relative to retirees. So anything we can do to increase the number of workers/people who are contributing relative to the number of people who are taking welfare benefits is worth it.

DG: There is a certain worker-to-retiree ratio that needs to be met in order for Social Security to last, correct?

AN: Yes, these systems are really poorly designed, so they are not going to last no matter what. But what immigration does is give them a boost, it gives us more time and makes the failure of these programs less catastrophic.

DG: That is something we are in dire need of. I believe I saw by year 2039 Social Security will essentially be bankrupt.

AN: Yes, sometime around the mid 2030s or late 2030s. It is on a pretty bad trajectory. There are changes that can be made that can help the system. But the benefits that have been promised will not be provided to most. Immigration helps mitigate these issues.

DG: Besides media and globalization, do you believe climate refugees are adding to immigration activity?

AN: Immigration is fairly stable globally. As a percentage of the population, it is at around 3% and it is not up that much from the last 20 years. What I think is causing the numbers to be as large as they are is that it is cheap to travel (cheaper than it used to be) and there are many more countries with liberalized immigration systems that make it easier for immigrants to act. As far as climate refugees, there is not much evidence of this in the data. That could be an issue in the future, but currently there is not much evidence of it. Low economic growth in countries is a better economic predictor. Paradoxically, you have to have a certain amount of wealth and income in order to migrate in the first place. So what we see is that a lot of countries are getting richer and up to about $9,000 in PPP is per capita income is when immigration from these countries to the U.S. peaks because these people have enough resources to leave (especially if they are ambitious), but not enough resources to incentivize them to stay. If Mexico was as poor as Haiti, there would probably be less immigration. Since Mexico is a middle-income country, as many central American countries, they are able to leave. If they were a lot poorer or a lot richer, they would not be able to come or not want to come. The super poor people of the world, living on a couple dollars a day, are not migrants. The migrants are the ones that can afford to journey to America.

DG: Do you believe the more we put off the immigration issue, the more the problem will grow?

AN: It is going to grow in the foreseeable future, but I think it is more likely that since birth rates around the world are collapsing, we are going to have an opposite problem. We are going to realize we do not have as many people as we need as the population levels off, and we will see that we do not have enough immigrants flowing into our country. Now is a great time to prepare for this. One of the biggest mistakes the U.S. has made was having closed borders from 1922 to 1968. We had tens of millions fewer people coming here from Europe, Asia, and Africa, and we lost out on tremendous opportunities from that time period. I worry that in the future we are going to look back at this time period and know that we had an ability to make this problem smaller, to allow in more people to increase our development, but we failed.

DG: Alex, thank you for the interview. I appreciate this. I am coming from this with multiple great talking points on immigration that I haven’t considered.

AN: Thanks a bunch, and I look forward to meeting you tonight. Also, I have a blog post online called “14 Arguments Against Immigration and Why They Are Wrong,” and this would be a good resource for you.