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People over Place: Reviewing “The Culture Transplant” by Garett Jones

“Any serious government would, therefore, develop and implement immigration policy with the utmost care. Instead, our governments are experimenting with unprecedented peacetime increases in immigration that further expand ethnic and cultural diversity.”

In a previous piece at Merion West on immigration to the United States, I paraphrased Christopher Caldwell to ask if the United States can stay the same with different people in it. The vital question of what a nation is—and how it sees itself—relates to what our collective futures will be in the nations of the Anglosphere. This demands insightful analysis and careful argumentation from those who know what they are talking about.

Fortunately, we have precisely that mix of virtues in Garett Jones’ book The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move To a Lot Like the Ones They Left, which was released with Stanford University Press in 2022. With this book, Jones brings the heavy artillery of statistical analysis and knowledge of the literature to bombard the opposition with evidence that immigration has a deep effect on our economies and cultures and that this effect persists down the generations. Any serious government would, therefore, develop and implement immigration policy with the utmost care. Instead, our governments are experimenting with unprecedented peacetime increases in immigration that further expand ethnic and cultural diversity.

The book’s provocative thesis is: “Immigration, to a large degree, creates a culture transplant, making the places that migrants go a lot like the places they left. And for good and for ill, those culture transplants shape a nation’s future prosperity.” Bolstering the thesis is the evidence Jones assembles to support his argument. He presents the facts in a straightforward manner. He explains in plain language the complexities of economic research and the workings of the “deep roots” literature that together provide the ammunition for his argument.

People Matter More Than Place

Drawing upon the research of Columbia University’s Xavier Sala-i-Martin to buttress his own contention that cultural factors are central to whether various economic systems succeed or fail, Jones points to the last 500 years of European expansion on a global scale. And guess what? “A lot of what people think of as just ‘the power of geography’ isn’t that at all—it’s really culture in disguise. How can I be so sure? Because particularly over the last five centuries, since the great age of European exploration and conquest, people have moved. They’ve moved in their millions from one country to another, sometimes voluntarily, all too often not. And when they moved, they almost never fully assimilated.” The places Europeans moved to—taking their culture, beliefs and ideas with them—became more like the places they left. We see this in their economic performance.

But, surely, the United States must be different, given that it is founded on a Constitution rather than an ethnicity? This is only somewhat true. The United States was created by descendants of religious iconoclasts who shaped its form and substance. Immigration will inevitably alter these roots. As Jones reports, on Protestant traits such as frugality, interpersonal trust, nuclear familial ties, technology and scientific inventiveness and innovation, and the role of government, those who migrated to the United States brought their ideas, norms, and mores with them.

Drawing on resources like the World Values Survey, and supplementing this with the General Social Survey, Jones shows that hyphenated Americans do indeed share the same traits and ideas as those people back home. In economic terms, cultural persistence applies to incomes: Different groups perform as well as those in their respective homelands do. Moreover, while there is 81% assimilation on cooperation by the fourth generation, attitudes about the role of government are far less assimilated by this generation. Overall, the cultural gap closes by just less than 60% after four generations.

In my aforementioned previous Merion West piece, I addressed the problem of immigration-eroded social trust. Trust is the social lubricant that enables us to rub along together; allows communities to function; and fosters economic prosperity. It is much easier for people to go into business, to trade, and to do deals, and for economies of scale to emerge if there exists a base-level belief that most people will not try to get over on each other over at the earliest opportunity, as well as that strangers are not drastically less trustworthy than one’s family, clan, or tribe. High social trust is essential.

As Jones writes, with second generation immigrants “current trust attitudes back in the ancestral homeland did a very good job predicting trust attitudes of Americans whose ancestors came from those homelands. Forty-six percent of the home-country attitude toward trust survived, when compared against migrants whose ancestors came from other countries. People from high-trust societies pass on about half of their high-trust attitudes to their descendants, and people from low-trust societies pass on about half of their low-trust attitudes. On average, hyphenated Americans appear to get about half of their attitudes toward trust from the land that comes before the hyphen.”

The view of immigrant assimilation commonly held by the center-right is that after a sufficient period in the immigrants’ adopted country, the cultural attributes of the old country will be worn away by intermarriage and acclimatization to the surrounding norms, mores, folkways, and traditions. In other words, there is something innately special about the piece of earth immigrants move to that will wipe away the imprint of the part of the world they moved from. Except that this is not the case. As Jones goes on, “looking only at those fourth-generation immigrants, people whose great-great-grandparents were the most recent ancestors to live their full lives overseas…[there was] [t]he same 46 percent persistence.”

People therefore matter more than place when it comes to the social attributes that make them a fit or not for the freer economies and societies of the West. Going further, on all of the traits outlined earlier—frugality, interpersonal trust, familial ties, the role of government, the degree of technology invention and innovation, the quality of government—multiple studies have demonstrated the deep and long-lasting impact that immigrants have on their new countries. As Jones writes, migration-adjusted measures always beat non-migration-adjusted measures in the research on why countries turn out the way they do. These measures apply to the impact of intra-European migration, as well as transcontinental migration.

According to Jones, “with estimates…for 147 countries along with information on who moved where since 1500, [two economists created a] migration matrix, and were in a position to ask the big question: Is the past prologue?” The answer is yes: “The results of [the economists’] horse race are extremely clear…migration-adjusted scores are twice as good as migration-unadjusted scores for predicting a nation’s prosperity in 2000. If you’re trying to guess how rich a country is today, you’ll make a far more accurate guess if you know the history of the people rather than the history of the place.”

If one knows what a modern country’s culture and economy were like 500 years ago, then with the requisite measurement and analysis, one can see what a country will be like today: “If the only thing you knew about each nation on the planet was the fraction of that nation with ancestors of European descent, and you did the best job you could trying to predict average modern income per person using just that one fact, you’d be able to predict two-thirds of all global income differences.”

Jones is thorough in assembling the evidence to support his thesis. But one criticism is that he does not go in much for “why” debates. Why do his migration-adjusted measures of State History, Agricultural History, and Tech History show such strong performance down the years from Europeans and their offshoots? Jones presents copious evidence on what happens and how, but why gets short shrift. There must be something in European and Western culture that gives rise to the success Jones documents, and which Joel Mokyr expands on in his books.

I would argue that this comes from what Joseph Henrich calls our WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) psychology, which tends to cultivate the mindset of individuals who act with a sense of agency, capable of impersonal trust. Heinrich roots this psychology in the Catholic Church’s early-medieval prohibition of cousin marriage. This prohibition served to break up clans and tribes, encouraged geographical and social mobility, reduced the power of the clan hierarchy, fostered individualism and a sense of personal destiny, enabled the rise of impersonal trust that undergirds the growth of economic scale through trade, and facilitated the growth of institutions that were independent corporate bodies with offices that were not tied to familial and clan relationships as patrimonial groups were.

The world shaped by the WEIRD psychology that Henrich details is expressed in a particular approach to life. As Lawrence Mead argues, this approach is assertive, driven, individualistic, and moralistic. This combination is associated with peoples capable of individual and collective self-government. They yearned to explore, invent, and gain mastery over the spaces of the mind and the world, to achieve prestige with and against their peers, playing the great game of life to the full, the prize nearly always just beyond reach, grasped only rarely. But such achievements across the realms of cultural, artistic, scientific, and philosophical endeavor stand for all time as testament to what greatness can be gained. This greatness not only redounded to the benefit of those who attained it but also to the collective sum of human flourishing. This is the “why” of Jones’ argument and it is why it matters.

The Trade-offs of Mass Immigration Today

Assimilation of immigrants to the host society is never complete and nor is it unidirectional. Jones explains the impact of “peer effects,” of why we start to do what others are doing to fit in with each other. Because we are social creatures, our cultural traits exchange and mix by what one might call an “invisible hand,” and we end up a little more like those who came to our shores. So, again, it is vitally important that those who come to our countries originate from cultures and societies closely compatible with our own. Only then will these newcomers contribute to the flourishing of our economies and the enrichment of our cultures, which combine to create the common life that gives our individual existence meaning and purpose.

What does this mean for us? In economic terms, one study reports: “A body of literature suggests that ethnic heterogeneity limits economic growth.” Jonas Hjort shows that homogenous Kenyan flower-picker teams outperformed tribally mixed teams. In the latter, tensions increased, and productivity suffered. A 1998 study found that diversity in the workplace does not necessarily produce the best results. Studies in 2003 and 2007 found that diversity had ambiguous effects. A 2005 study was more pessimistic, noting the divisiveness that tended to erupt. A 2011 study could not find evidence for diversity’s positive impact. A 2012 Dutch study noted that “it has become a truism that diversity is a “double-edged sword.”

Diversity in corporate teams works, according to Jones, when companies can screen effectively for education level and competence. Consultancies such as McKinsey & Company find a positive relationship between a diverse board and corporate profitability. But this is due to the ability to screen for candidates of like mind and similar skill levels, which helps explain why support for increased immigration and diversity tends to be class-based: Elites are able to screen and, therefore, meet ethnic minorities of a similar sociocultural and economic level. Elites project from their own experience onto migration as such.

As Jones writes, “when you’re rich enough to screen out all the possible costs of diversity, all that’s left are the cases where our diversity is our strength.” The ruling overclass and the Clerisy who culturally legitimate immigration denigrate immigration restrictionism from lower class people. They do not suffer its downsides and only gain from its upsides. Open borders and globalization, thus, constitute luxury beliefs that comprise part of the revolt of the overclass in the deterritorialized global hubs against the provincial heartlands.

This is all well and good for those who profit from these circumstances, but, for the rest, increasing ethnic diversity exacerbates social tensions, reduces willingness to contribute toward public goods like welfare programs and infrastructure, and can exacerbate instability. This is corroborated by a range of studies cited by Jones, confirming what one can already observe from looking around at the real world. Jones summarizes the trade-offs this way: “Skill diversity: Good for national flourishing, Ethnic diversity combined with cultural value diversity: A higher risk of destructive social conflict.”

Misgovernment, Migration, and Degradation

This is why the Left’s grievance politics, for which disparities are automatic evidence of discrimination to be addressed by the state, is so dangerous. This “woke” New Moral Order celebrates diversity as a tearing down of the old order and the raising of a new one, in both moral and monetary terms. Merit in science, medicine, engineering, law, technology, along with the arts and humanities, is sacrificed on the altar of equity.

This attack is especially dangerous because it is being launched in the centers of world innovation, what Jones calls the “I-7,” which comprises the United States, Europe, and East Asia. Out of around 200 countries, around a dozen invent the vast majority of ideas and discoveries. Jones shows, again, that a country’s record of scientific achievement in 1500 is predictive of the same today.

The assault on excellence and merit in the United States and in other Anglosphere countries like the United Kingdom, therefore, risks undermining and even destroying the ability to employ human capital to the greatest extent in service of scientific and technological invention, innovation, and dissemination. This is twinned with immigration from countries that contribute far less to our collective fund of scientific knowledge. “That means that the entire world has a stake in the [State History, Agricultural History, and Tech History] scores, transplanted cultural traits, and forms of diversity that exist in these seven high-innovation nations, our world’s I-7. If any of these nations takes even a small hit to the quality of its government, within a decade or two that probably means a big hit to the world’s stock of great new ideas. And there aren’t any heavily populated, well-governed, strong Tech History nations waiting in the wings to take up the slack if an I-7 nation drifts toward mediocrity.”

The results of this ruinous campaign against competence as the highest good of our economic systems are already becoming clear. See Boeing’s ongoing troubles. The fallout will cascade and accumulate as we increasingly fail to maintain our complex civilization of “systems of systems,” let alone improve on it. As Jones writes, “The entire world stands to gain when the biggest countries with the best institutions innovate. And we all stand to lose when they don’t. That means the entire world has a stake in the governance, the institutional quality, of the world’s seven most innovative nations: China, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, United Kingdom, United States.”

It is a shame that our governments in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the wider Anglosphere do not share this sense of duty and responsibility to maximize the flourishing of their own people and, by-proxy, the world. Instead, in service to a New Moral Order that motivates and legitimizes the managerial regime under which we all live, their obsession with global over national welfare stands to destroy both.

Henry George is a columnist at Merion West, focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. 

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