A Thought on Immigration and Human Progress

Over at AEIdeas, James Pethokoukis has an article titled Has human progress stalled? And if so, what can we do about it? In it he talks about the apparent stagnation in human technological progress, and mentions the fact that American “productivity growth averaged nearly 3% during the period 1947-1973,” and we haven’t approached that rate since.

He quoted Aeon:

Yet there once was an age when speculation matched reality. It spluttered to a halt more than 40 years ago. Most of what has happened since has been merely incremental improvements upon what came before. That true age of innovation—I’ll call it the Golden Quarter—ran from approximately 1945 to 1971. Just about everything that defines the modern world either came about, or had its seeds sown, during this time. …  The Golden Quarter was a unique period of less than a single human generation, a time when innovation appeared to be running on a mix of dragster fuel and dilithium crystals.

Then he quoted Aeon again by way of offering an explanation (that I think somewhat begs the question) of why we “spluttered to a halt more than 40 years ago.”

Could it be that the missing part of the jigsaw is our attitude towards risk? Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the saying goes. …  In the 1960s, new medicines were rushed to market. Not all of them worked and a few (thalidomide) had disastrous consequences. But the overall result was a medical boom that brought huge benefits to millions. Today, this is impossible. ….

The solutions that Pethokoukis and others to whom he linked in his article, though, are governmental: “maybe too much government regulation.” He also points to demographics [links in the original]:

We are a decade older, on average, today than in 1970 and perhaps more risk averse for that reason. Younger societies tend to be more dynamic, creative, and entrepreneurial, as Nobel laureate economist Gary Becker has written. And economist Robert Gordon cites demographics as one big reason when he thinks the era of fast US economic growth is over.

I think he’s likely right on both scores, but I think government regulations, though hugely important, are the lesser of the two factors. Regulations, after all, even with political inertia, can be undone. Aging is irreversible.

Or is it? Contra Gordon, our rapid economic growth need not be a thing of the past. We can recover our nation’s youth and vitality and our ability and willingness to get out of our comfort zone and take risks, take big risks for big gains, to “land a man on a moon of Saturn and return him safely to the earth within this generation.” That’s what immigration does for us. It’s what immigration always has done for us. Keep in mind: immigrants already are risk takers, or they wouldn’t be here.

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