Thomas Sowell is an influential and prolific writer whose books span the social sciences. My shelves are full of them, decorated with underlines, marginalia, and dog-eared pages. But in his recent columns and comments on immigration, Sowell has not approached that topic with the same rigorous attention to detail that he has in his books. His reliance on incomplete historical examinations in his columns leads him to seemingly support a vast array of government interventions. In these writings, Sowell makes the same mistakes that he accuses the “anointed” of making in many of his books.
In the column I’ll focus on, professor Sowell’s claim that today’s debate about immigration reform is not as fact-based as previous debates. The implication is that a lack of facts will lead to poor policy decisions today whereas the policy changes 100 years ago were well thought out and fact-based. He wrote:
A hundred years ago, the immigration controversies of that era were discussed in the context of innumerable facts about particular immigrant groups. Many of those facts were published in a huge, multi-volume 1911 study by a commission headed by Senator William P. Dillingham.
First, Sowell’s description of the Dillingham Commission’s commitment to facts is inaccurate. It was a bi-partisan committee formed in 1907 to investigate the impacts of immigration on the United States – especially the so-called “new immigrants” from Eastern and Southern Europe. The Commission was staffed by Progressives who believed that scientific managerial methods could effectively plan large parts of society and the economy by using the power of the government. With the exception of one member, William S. Bennet of New York, the commission was stacked with members who had previously supported immigration restrictions.
The Dillingham Commission produced 42 volumes by 1911, arguing that the “new immigrants” were fundamentally different from old immigrants who came from Western and Northern Europe. Their culture, rates of economic success, and assimilative potential were supposedly severely constrained. Those are the same claims made by today’s immigration opponents. The Dillingham Commission suggested that immigration restrictions (ranging from relatively modest literacy tests to outright quotas and other massive interventions) could solve this “problem.”