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On Immigration, Do As the Romans Did

On Immigration, Do As the Romans Did

February 8, 2018

Business & Management

For 2,000 years, countries that embrace outsiders have risen, while closed societies have stagnated.

By Gerard J. Tellis and Stav Rosenzweig

Dr. Stav Rosenzweig

The Wall Street Journal — Are immigrants a net benefit to the recipient country? The continuing debate over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has revived public conversation about that question.

In the short term, immigrants increase demand for public services, while competing with native workers for jobs. The benefits, on the other hand, play out in the long term. Openness to outsiders has the power to make or break a civilization. Throughout the past two millennia, nations that admitted and empowered immigrants have flourished, while those that closed themselves off have stagnated and declined.

The Roman Empire regularly conferred rights or even citizenship on peoples that it conquered, welcoming outsiders into the army, bureaucracy and politics —and eventually even to the throne. Immigrants brought resources, talent and cultural dynamism that helped give Rome an edge over other civilizations that rose and fell around the Mediterranean during the same era.

Our research suggests that the Mongol Empire also sought to integrate conquered peoples. Today the Mongols are largely remembered as a warrior nation that ravaged Asian and European cities during the rule of Genghis Khan. But they also offered their peoples land to till honorably and established a system of free trade that rejuvenated the Silk Road, allowing the fruitful exchange of goods and innovation between Europe and Asia. The Mongol court welcomed people of diverse ethnicities and religions.

Between the 15th and 17th centuries the Netherlands was a bastion of tolerance, even as Europe was racked by religious battles between Protestants and Catholics. The Dutch accepted Northern European immigrants seeking better economic prospects. They welcomed Protestant, Jewish and Muslim refugees from Southern Europe fleeing religious persecution. The rise of the Dutch Empire coincided with this embrace of outsiders. Immigrants fueled innovation, enterprise and economic expansion that gave the small country a global reach. In contrast, Portugal and Spain were in decline while they enforced the Catholic Inquisition.

Likewise, the rise of England from a small island state to an empire during the 17th and 18th centuries coincided with its embrace of Europeans fleeing religious or political persecution. England became a hotbed for ideas, scientific research and technology, which in turn attracted more immigrants.

Perhaps the most powerful example from history is that of the U.S. compared with Brazil and Mexico. In the early 18th century, the latter two offered immigrants the most desirable opportunities, while North America was a backwater. Yet over the next 200 years, Brazil and Mexico struggled, while the U.S. rose to become a world power.

The countries’ contrasting attitudes toward immigration were an important factor. The U.S. welcomed immigrants of all religions and countries of Europe, while Brazil and Mexico strongly favored Catholics, mostly from Portugal and Spain respectively. The U.S. gave most immigrants the right to move around in the country, own land, and start businesses. This led to a population boom, a growing workforce, a flowering of innovation, and a burst of entrepreneurship. Despite its intemperate climate and rough terrain, the U.S. became the land of opportunity that continues to flourish today.

It is counterintuitive that poor immigrants, who lack assets and skills, can be a net benefit. But the loss of home, security and endowment that is a result of emigrating sparks creativity and prompts hard work. Coupled with increased demand, this new activity leads to economic expansion. Thus, while immigration creates clear short-term costs, the long-term gains are more than worth the investment.

It is not possible to run a perfect experiment to observe how immigration shapes a country. But history reveals a clear pattern. For over 2,000 years, the innovation and prosperity of nations has seemed to coincide with their embrace of immigrants. Conversely, stagnation and decline have coincided with closed systems that persecute minorities. At a time when easy answers on DACA and immigration policy are not evident, these historical cases are worth careful scrutiny.

Dr. Gerard J. Tellis is a professor of marketing and management at the University of Southern California. Dr. Stav Rosenzweig is a senior lecturer at BGU’s Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management. This article is based on their forthcoming book, “How Transformative Innovations Shaped the Rise of Nations: From Ancient Rome to Modern America.