A Nation Built on Immigrant Genes

By John D. Gartner
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

If you've been following the big immigration debate, you might get the impression that the primary economic advantage of liberal economic immigration policies is that they supply America with low-wage workers willing to do grueling, unskilled jobs that native-born Americans won't touch. Not true: They are the source of America's success.

The secret to America's wealth is that we were settled by restless, driven, overconfident, risk-taking dreamers. As I have explained in a book on the subject, these traits are all signs of a genetically based, mildly manic temperament, which is not a mental illness, called hypomania.

Hypomanic traits have been part of the American character since the country's beginning. In the 1830s, Tocqueville noted that Americans were "restless in the midst of abundance," always moving, always working and perpetually hurling themselves into one new business venture after another. Not coincidentally, in my research, I found that entrepreneurs have these same traits.

America is an amazing natural experiment -- a continent populated largely by self-selected immigrants. All these people had the get-up-and-go to pull up stakes and come here, a temperament that made them different from their friends and relatives who stayed home. Immigrants are the original venture capitalists, risking their human capital -- their lives -- on a dangerous and arduous voyage into the unknown.

Not surprisingly, given this entrepreneurial spirit, immigrants are self-employed at much higher rates than native-born people, regardless of what nation they emigrate to or from. And the rate of entrepreneurial activity in a nation is correlated with the number of immigrants it absorbs. According to a cross-national study, "The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor," conducted jointly by Babson College and the London School of Economics, the four nations with the highest per capita creation of new companies are the United States, Canada, Israel and Australia -- all nations of immigrants. New company creation per capita is a strong predictor of gross domestic product, and so the conclusion is simple: Immigrants equal national wealth.

Andrew Carnegie, a 19th century Scottish immigrant and, quite a manic personality, who started working in a factory for pennies a day and became the richest man in the world by mass-producing steel, made the same argument. Immigrants, he wrote, were unusually "capable, energetic and ambitious" people. They had to be. "The old and the destitute, the idle and the contented do not brave the waves of the stormy Atlantic, but sit helplessly at home." He called the flow of people into America the "golden stream" that contributed more to America's wealth than "all the gold mines in the world." It's as true today as it was then. The Scottish, Irish, Italians, Japanese and Eastern Europeans were last century's Mexicans -- unwashed hordes, thought to be good only for cheap labor.

Let's get the lesson of Sept. 11 right. We need to screen who gets into the United States, to keep out the suicide bombers. But if they're not here to kill us, chances are they will inject new life into our economy. In my book, I predicted that future historians will be able to date the beginning of the decline of the American empire to the day we stop being the destination of choice for immigrants. Ominously, U.S. immigration peaked in 2000. Is this the beginning of the end? I hope Osama bin Laden will not end the great American experiment.

The writer is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University Medical School and author of "The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America." His e-mail address isjohndgartner@comcast.net.


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