»  National Review Online

June 18th, 2007

  Marching On the Palace


When, 626 years ago last week, the original peasants with pitchforks marched on London, one of their rallying cries was: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"

The word "gentleman" was at that time still close to its etymological meaning of "well born" — same root as "genetics" and "eugenics" — so the rebels were asking, rhetorically, what right the nobles, gentry, and church grandees had to tax and otherwise oppress them, since rich and poor alike all traced their ancestry back to Adam and Eve.

This is the sort of issue that should not arise in the U.S.A. Birth counts for nothing here. There is equal opportunity for all. We have an elite, of course. No human — nor even primate! — society is without an elite. Our elite, however, is meritocratic. It is not an elite of birth, but an elite of talent. Furthermore, to the degree that the elite makes demands on us commoners, those demands are subject to democratic audit.

We have so effectively banished the concept of "well born" from our mental landscape, we have even tabooed a lot of the "gen-" words. Genetics? Eugenics? Dysgenic? For heaven's sake!

So the feeling I've been getting the past couple of weeks that I'm in Richard the Second's London, up on the ramparts of the Tower, watching smoke rise in the distance from some manor or priory put to the torch by those pesky peasants, needs explaining. What's going on? The Senate immigration bill is to be revivified this week, with a good possibility of passage. Says Paul Weyrich: "In all of the years I have been [in Washington] I never have known a time when the establishment really wants something that the establishment cannot obtain it. And the establishment really wants this bill."

We commoners, on the other hand, don't want the bill at all.

Just 20% of American voters want Congress to try and pass the immigration reform bill that failed in the Senate last week … 51% would like their legislators to "take smaller steps towards reform" while 16% believe they should wait until next year … Sixty-nine percent (69%) of voters would favor an approach that focuses … "exclusively on securing the border and reducing illegal immigration." Support for the enforcement-only approach comes from 84% of Republicans, 55% of Democrats, and 69% of those not affiliated with either major party … Fifty-seven percent (57%) favor a proposal giving "all illegal aliens up to three years to leave the United States. After leaving, the illegal aliens would have to get in line and wait their turn for legal entry into the United States." Support for that concept comes from 67% of Republicans, 49% of Democrats, and 56% of unaffiliated voters … The Senate immigration reform bill that failed last week was far more popular in Congress than among the American people … At the end, just 23% of voters favored the legislation … Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) has seen his Favorability ratings slide to 19% during the recent debate. A month ago, he was viewed favorably by 26% …

We — we, the commoners — hate the darn bill. They, the elites — Weyrich's "establishment" — love it, and are as determined to force it on us as Richard II's advisors were to force the hated poll tax on the peasants of Plantagenet England. What's going on?

Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, thinks he knows. He has written a book titled The Myth of the Rational Voter I'll confess, I haven't read the book, and know of its thesis only from a one-page write-up in the current (6/16/07) issue of The Economist (page 42, online only to subscribers).

According to that, Prof. Caplan believes that voters ignorant of economic theory — which is to say, most voters (including this one) — vote irrationally. This wouldn't matter if we voted at random, because then all the irrationality would cancel out to zero, and the minority of voters who do understand economics would prevail. Unfortunately, says the Prof., our irrationality is biased in certain ways. We tend to confuse the public prosperity with our private prosperity, for instance. If we have a job — even a make-work job — we tend to feel the country's doing well, and will vote for the guy whose policies seem likely to let us keep our job.

One of the voter biases Prof. Caplan catalogs is "anti-foreignism." The Economist:

[The public is] squeamish about trade with foreigners, and even more so about foreigners who enter their country to do jobs they spurn.

The Economist is showing its open-borders colors there. "Jobs they spurn"? Did we spurn these jobs before foreigners came in to do them for lower wages? How do these jobs get done in countries like Japan, Switzerland, Iceland, or New Zealand, whose immigration policies are far stricter than ours (and two of which have higher GDP per capita than ours, in spite of having nothing like our size or natural resources)? And how, exactly, can the normal and healthy emotion of patriotism be squared with willingness to open one's nation's borders to tens of millions of foreigners? Nobody minds one foreigner coming in, or ten, or a hundred. At which numerical point do public objections become "anti-foreign"? A thousand? A million? A billion?

Setting that aside, the question still hangs in the air: Why is it that on this issue, above all, the gap between elites and commoners is so wide?

It has been so for years. Here is a paper from five years ago by the Center for Immigration Studies. The definition of "elites" for this study bears a moment's thought. The elites here are "400 individuals who are described as opinion leaders. This includes members of Congress, the administration and the leaders of church groups, executives from the nation's 1,000 largest companies, union leaders, journalists, academics, think tanks, interest groups."

Here is a panel discussion of the paper, in which pollster Scott Rasmussen compares the elite-commoner gap on immigration to that on term limits.

With term limits, 75 percent or more of the public was always with us and 75 percent or more of the elites were always against us. So I don't see a gap like this as terribly surprising, although the gap on immigration issues is among the largest that I see in policy issues today.

I think it is the University of Maryland's James Gimpel who gets to the nub of the matter in that panel discussion. Prof. Gimpel offers three reasons for the gap. (The quotes here are from him.)

Perhaps we are stupid — stupid enough, at any rate, to let the elites roll over us on immigration. The peasants who marched on London in 1381 proved to be just about that stupid. Their young King — he was just fourteen — spoke soft word to them, promised them amnesty and forgiveness, and they believed him. Once the situation was under control, of course, he hanged them all.

On the other hand, "no late medieval Parliament ever tried to impose a poll tax upon the Nation again."

Where's my pitchfork?