Coming to America

REVIEW: ‘The Culture Transplant’ by Garett Jones

December 11, 2022

Imagine that you are a U.S. immigration officer, handing out green cards to the would-be Americans of the world. You have before you two applicants who look almost completely the same; for some arcane, unspecified bureaucratic reason, you can only approve one of them. They’re both well-educated by American standards, both bringing identical families, both passed their background checks.

The major difference is their nation of origin. One is from a nation with a strong tradition of rule of law, free markets, and democratic pluralism. The other is from a country where kleptocracy, autocracy, and socialism are standard. The difference, in other words, is the character of the society that your two would-be immigrants come from. The question is: Should this difference matter?

The basic argument of The Culture Transplant, the new book from George Mason University professor Garett Jones, is that at least in the aggregate, the answer to this question is "yes." The marginal immigrant, to be sure, may not matter. But Jones shows, through an engaging and digestible tour of the academic literature, that people bring their national character with them when they migrate; that those values persist for up to several generations; and that some values really are better for societal flourishing than others, so the values immigrants bring matters a great deal.

To reach this conclusion, Jones relies on a fairly diverse set of evidence. Much of the basis for his argument, though, is drawn from the so-called deep-roots literature. That research, in essence, looks at what today’s countries were like 500 to 2,500 years ago, in terms of level of governance, agricultural development, and technological development. It observes that what a country was like hundreds of years ago is a strong predictor of how developed it is today. More to Jones’s point, it observes that what a country’s people were like hundreds of years ago predicts what they are like today.

The point here is that, for whatever reason, certain fundamental facts about a civilization—i.e., its level of development—are both highly relevant to its performance on the centuries timespan and transplantable from one place to another. One plausible explanation is that whatever determines this outcome inheres in the people from those civilizations, who carry it with them and "transplant" it wherever they migrate.

Indeed, Jones reviews extensive research that shows immigrants often look more like their ancestors than the countries they arrive to, even several generations after arrival. If your ancestors believed in things conducive to development—social trust, cooperation, fairness, etc.—then you probably do too. And those beliefs matter for how the country you now live in does.

What are the concrete implications of this view? Jones offers two. One is that the countries with the highest rates of innovation—China, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States—should be extremely cautious about changing the population composition through migration. These countries produce the overwhelming majority of the world’s progress, and if progress is a function of your country’s composition, then we should care a lot about keeping their current mix, because otherwise all of humanity loses out.

The other implication Jones offers is that most developing nations should be open to migration from these countries, specifically from China. He notes that most of the nations dominated by migrants from China—Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, for example—do quite well by most measures of thriving. The norms of Chinese civilization, interrupted though they were by Mao’s terror, are he thinks still a good way to get ahead. So the millions of Chinese migrants to Africa are probably a boon.

This last argument I find less persuasive—it seems likely that Chinese migrants to African nations represent a deliberate expansion of the Chinese sphere of influence, a neocolonial project with dire global security implications. But bracketing such concerns, the basic value of The Culture Transplant is that it gives a firm research foundation to an obvious, but infrequently acknowledged fact: different migrants are different.

George Borjas, the Harvard economist who is probably the nation’s leading academic proponent of immigration restrictionism, entitled his 2016 book on immigration economics We Wanted Workers, itself an allusion to a line from the Swiss playwright Max Frisch: "we wanted workers, but we got people instead." Borjas’s point is, in part, that much of contemporary immigration policy is structured around considering the labor market implications of additional arrivals, without considering them as whole persons. More generally, it might be fair to say that the U.S. immigration system allocates the right to immigrate on the basis of skill, family connections, humanitarian concern, or underrepresentation of national background. We want workers, or family members, or refugees. But we get people instead.

Those people, moreover, carry with them notions—about fairness, justice, trust, good and bad governance—that, Jones shows, are durable. They shape the culture that they come to. And so it is perfectly reasonable, from the perspective of someone who thinks, as most Americans do, that America should select those immigrants who serve its national interest, to also believe that the values immigrants bring with them matter and should be considered.

It is hard, of course, to do that under the status quo—nobody gets a visa because he loves America. But if Jones is right, it matters that green cards go to those who do love America, and so it would be good to spend more time discerning how to measure that correctly.

The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move To a Lot Like the Ones They Left
by Garett Jones
Stanford Business Books, 228 pp., $25

Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal.

Published under: Book reviews , Immigration