Julian Simon Would Tell Us: America Needs More Immigrants

The economist taught that people are the "ultimate resource."


The late economist Julian Simon taught us that people are the "ultimate resource." In the short-term, population growth causes problems. It increases traffic, crowds our schools, and stretches family and government budgets. But over time, population growth pushes us to innovate and find solutions that leave us better off. Population growth drives economic expansion. It makes us richer. And it improves our health and environment.

Simon died in 1998, but he left behind decades of controversial and path-breaking work—and an unusually good track record.

In 1980, Simon famously offered a wager to back up his work showing that natural resources generally become less scarce and less expensive. Doomsayer Paul Ehrlich accepted the challenge, chose five metals, and bet that between 1980 and 1990, their prices would rise because they would become scarcer. Simon bet that the prices of the metals would fall. In 1990, Simon won the bet. Prices of all five metals fell.

I miss Julian Simon more than most. He was my father. I often think about what he would say about the economic issues we face today. On the subject of immigration, I know what he would say: The economic evidence is clear that America needs more immigrants.

In his book The Economic Consequences of Immigration, praised by Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman, Simon showed that immigrants improve our economy. They work more, save more and start more businesses per person than native-born Americans. They raise the overall incomes of native-born Americans. And, particularly through the taxes they pay, they have an overall positive impact on the public coffers. Their positive impact on federal government finances is greater than their negative impact on state and local government finances.

Given Simon's great track record predicting economic and societal outcomes, it is not surprising that so many of his findings still hold true.

In 2016, the National Academy of Sciences reported that immigration "is integral to the nation's economic growth." Immigrants have "helped the United States avoid the problems facing stagnant economies created by unfavorable demographics," particularly an aging workforce. Immigrants (who are now better educated than ever) have "boosted the nation's capacity for innovation, entrepreneurship, and technological change." The National Academy of Sciences confirmed that immigrants make us richer and contribute more to the public coffers than they take out.

What kinds of immigrants does the U.S. need? All kinds, Simon would tell us. We need the innovators, inventors, and entrepreneurs who will create the next Google, Comcast and Tesla (all founded or co-founded by immigrants). And we need the immigrants who pick fruit and do other back-breaking work that almost no other Americans will do.

Simon also would point out that immigrants make America safer. Immigrants commit fewer crimes than other Americans. The American Immigration Council reported in 2015 that immigrants are less likely than the native-born to engage in either violent or nonviolent "antisocial" behaviors, and less likely than the native-born to be behind bars.

Finally, Simon would tell us that the understanding of immigrants' crucial role in America's economic success dates back to July 4, 1776. The Declaration of Independence attacked King George for obstructing immigration to America. "He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither…"

The bottom line, Simon would tell us, is that people who sacrifice so much, and leave everything and everyone they know to come hundreds or thousands of miles to America, are exactly the kind of people our country needs and should want. They provide America with one of its great advantages over the rest of the world. Immigrants are a key reason that the American economy grows faster, innovates more, and has more vitality and better demographics (a critically important higher birth rate and a less aging workforce). America, he would say, needs more immigrants.

David M. Simon is a lawyer in Chicago. The views expressed in this article are his own and not those of the law firm with which he is affiliated.