Mises Wire

Individualism in the US Has Helped Make It an Economic Success

Immigration has raised concerns in some about America’s demographic future. Some propose that an influx of migrants with foreign worldviews will fracture American society. This argument is based on the finding that the diversity generated by immigration deters social trust.

Trust is a crucial ingredient for societies to thrive by establishing collaborative institutions. Trusting societies are more cooperative and innovative because when people trust each other, they are more likely to share information. Trust also makes it easier to do business by lowering transaction costs.

People will expedite the business process when they have confidence in the integrity of their partners. Because trust is a stimulant for social progress, concerns that immigration will corrode social relations is a legitimate worry. However, the ripple effects of immigration are more complicated than the problems posed by a low-trust society.

Individualism has been a source of America’s strength and ingenuity. Risk-tolerant and individualistic individuals migrated to America where they built the most successful society in history. Unlike in other places in Western society, change is driven by individuals rather than imposed by foreign actors.

Lawrence Mead explains in his book Burdens of Freedom that although migrants prosper in America, recent waves of immigration have been propelled by non-Europeans who are not as individualistic as European whites. Such people do succeed in America. However, on average, they fail to embrace freedom as a burden requiring obligations.

The downside is that the lack of a widespread ethos of individualism among some groups precludes them from achieving parity with the dominant white majority. East Asians do well financially in America, yet Mead opines that academics lament their conformity and inability to chart new terrains. Mead thinks that importing less-individualistic migrants from non-Western countries will sap American dynamism by reducing the propensity for individualism.

Historically, America succeeded at assimilating migrants. However, with the advent of multiculturalism, assimilation has become a dirty word. Instead, activists debase the founding fathers and European philosophers. Traits we associate with the West like individualism and analytical thinking are demeaned as products of white supremacy.

Therefore, it’s unlikely that future generations of immigrants will assimilate in large numbers. Mead’s conclusions might sound farfetched, but they are endorsed by research exploring the long-term effects of culture. Personality is heritable, so nonindividualistic immigrants are likely to birth nonindividualistic children. Individualism is a strong predictor of innovation and economic growth. Hence, a surge in less-individualistic people can limit economic growth rates.

Evidence analyzed by London School of Economics researcher Sijie Hu indicates that the reproduction of personality traits hostile to innovation stymies growth. Studying the reproductive rates of imperial China, Hu shows that elites who subscribed to the conformist tendencies of Confucianism were likely to reproduce, and this adversely affected economic growth rates during the Qing dynasty. So, Mead is not wrong to suggest that a less-individualistic America could lead to unfavorable economic outcomes.

Libertarians are wary of proposals to restrict immigration, due to economic and philosophical reasons. However, they must address the damages that immigration poses to sustaining American ingenuity. All cultures don’t lead to similar outcomes, so libertarians must account for cultural consequences when promoting immigration.

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