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Cities and Immigration By: Robert Locke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, April 23, 2002


I WOULD LIKE TO MOMENTARILY ADDRESS AN IMMIGRATION ISSUE that is not related to September 11; it being worthwhile to catalogue and refute all the various pro-immigration sophistries that are in circulation. Living in New York, I am often exposed to the argument that mass immigration is a good thing because it enables the populations of otherwise-declining American cities to rebound. Here’s why this is wrong:

1. It presupposes that size of population is necessarily a positive indicator of the well-being of a city, which it clearly is not. Look at the swelling mega-cities of the Third World. Are places like Cairo, Calcutta, and Mexico City really the models we wish to imitate? Or, with our own cities, is there really any doubt that the quality of life for the average inhabitant has declined in places like Los Angeles as they have grown over the last 30 years? Ask anyone who has lived in Southern California during this period about housing costs, traffic congestion, sprawl, pollution, and a host of other population-driven problems.

2. It presupposes that the declining populations of pre-WWII urban cores (which is really what is at issue) are a bad thing. But frankly, the fact that Americans are able to escape the grungy, obsolete, over-taxed, crime-infested old city centers for bright new suburbs is one of the nice things about our society. The proof? This is what the vast majority do when they can afford it. The other proof? How would you feel about being prevented from doing so? It is a great social achievement that the average American can afford to live in a suburb, and it is an unfortunate thing that some people still have to live in the inner city. Intellectuals keep defending the city against the suburbs, but with the exception of gilded ghettoes like Greenwich Village that are utterly unrepresentative of urban life in this country, very few people actually want to live there. We should be celebrating the depopulation of places like Detroit and the South Bronx, not bemoaning it.

3. Dumping raw immigrants into these city centers gives their governments, which don't like their population declines one bit, no incentive to fix the fundamental quality-of-life problems that cause this decline. Look at the enormous fuss Detroit made over the last census, in which it dipped below a million people. The politicians who run these cities view declining populations as declining political power for them, declining federal grants, (as they are based on census figures) and less tax base to generate money to throw around. Generally, they don't care about the quality of their constituents' lives, but when people vote with their feet, this presents a problem that cannot be politically massaged. It might even blackmail them into doing radical things like fixing the public school system or collecting the trash on time. But, and this is key, not if they can rely on a stream of new immigrants to replace the people who are leaving. Immigrants, because they tend to come from Third World societies, will tolerate abysmal living conditions that Americans won't accept. And by tolerating them, they help maintain them. They are also ideal electoral cannon fodder for liberal big-city machines, given that their votes can be bought with welfare-state transfer payments that don't require upsetting the public-employee unions with the reforms that would be needed to deliver decent public services.

4. It is no accident that most of these central cities are Democrat-controlled, both at the mayoral level and in terms of their representation in state legislatures and the US Congress. Therefore the decline of these areas helps drag down the Democratic Party, and anything that props them up, props it up. Therefore anyone who tries to link the population "revitalization" of central cities with the economic growth agenda of Republicans, and therefore prove that this trend favors Republicans, is engaging in pure word-magic that is the opposite of political reality.

So if this idea is so wrong, why is it so attractive to some people? Some reasons:

1. We Americans have the ingrained idea that urbanization means progress, which was actually true 100 years ago when cities were the cutting edge of our economy. But nowadays the center of economic dynamism in our society is in suburban office parks, and a return to old rust-belt urban cores is retrogressive. We are reactivating these cores with a flood of cheap foreign labor that makes their low-productivity industries, like piece-production in the garment districts of New York and Los Angeles, viable again in this country. America is actually becoming a cheap-labor competitor in some industries. But we should be glad to be beyond low-productivity, which must always be low-wage, industries. That the old garment district of Manhattan teems with immigrant workers is not a sign of economic dynamism in this country; it is a sign that we are regressing to the level of Third-World economies like Shenzhen where crude unskilled manual-assembly labor is king. It is a truly amazing feat to make a capitalist economy go backwards down the value chain, but we are starting to manage it. Naturally, this is not the natural drift of capitalist progress, but a pure political artifact driven by immigration policy.

2. Because our society has these obsolete urban cores, people think they ought to be used for something. The vast tenement districts of New York were built, essentially, to accommodate the Old Immigration wave around 1900; their intended purpose is no longer valid and they should be allowed to decline. But their very existence carries a temptation to use them. This is connected to the larger problem of American society having formed a lot of its institutions and attitudes during what was on the merits a temporary period of immigration which these institutions now try to make permanent.

4. People on some level feel guilty about living in suburbia, given that this does cause the decline of cities, and they want someone else to do the distasteful task of living there.

5. People whose own forbears were urban immigrants like to see this continue because it emotionally validates their own heritage.

6. We Americans have a culturally ingrained love of growth for growth's sake. (Ed Abbey, a leftist not entirely bereft of sense, described this as "the philosophy of the cancer cell.") This love derives from the fact that for most of our history, we were an immature nation whose potential obviously exceeded its actuality and which could therefore presume that growth was intrinsically good. So we hard-coded the ideal of endless growth into our culture, forgetting that what grows, must someday mature, and reach a point at which further growth no longer means anything. It is quite obvious, for example, that further population growth in any of the European countries would add nothing but problems, and most people there intuitively realize this. In 1924, at the time of the great immigration reform, we clearly understood this too. But this concept of national maturity is one of the crucial ideas our culture has lost, even though further growth at this point (particularly if driven by immigration) only dissolves our common national culture and erodes our key national achievements like our exceptional material quality of life. We must restore this fundamental idea that a nation should grow to the point where it reaches its greatest achievements, and that's it. There is a difference between national greatness and national bloatedness. One can frame this idea in conservative or liberal terms, given its consequences for the environment and those who have to compete with imported cheap labor. It should be part of the bi-partisan consensus, as it was 1924-65.

Or if we really truly want it, we can have our own Calcutta.

Robert Locke resides in New York City. Others of his articles may be found on vdare.com and robertlocke.com.




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