Demos blogger Matt Bruenig, in an apparently Burkean mood, writes:
The biggest factor in production is not nature, labor, or capital, but in fact accumulated technology and knowledge that comes to us as an unearned inheritance from the past. The marginal productivity of that unearned inheritance accounts for the majority of our economic output. Imagine you held everything else equal in the economy, but then ticked off electricity technology (which nobody alive has produced). By how much would the economy shrink? A ton.
I say Burkean, of course, because of Edmund Burke’s famous passage:
We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that he would do better to avail himself of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.
Bruenig correctly points out that it is the bank and capital of nations and of ages that account for nearly all of our economic activity. We owe our know-how, our “lower-level knowledge” as Amar Bhide puts it, to those who came before us. We live off of their accomplishments, and can only aspire to add something meaningful to them.
A drastically more open immigration policy makes a great deal of sense, from this perspective. Global wealth is greatly hindered by the fact that nearly all of humanity is stuck in places that do not have a lot of capital in the bank of their nations, so to speak. From a broad point of view, allowing as many people as possible to move to areas where they can participate in greater “accumulated technology and knowledge” enriches the world. From a humanitarian point of view, it most directly lifts the poorest people on Earth out of poverty, and from a selfish point, it is highly likely to enrich the average American.
The great innovators of the 19th and 20th century in this country were largely either immigrants or the children or grandchildren of immigrants. Who believes that America would have been better off without a Ford or a Carnegie?
Some fear that opening the door to the bank and capital of our nation will do violence to those institutions, but history has not given us reason to give much credibility to this concern. It certainly did not happen when we had drastically more open borders in the 19th century. Technology and lower-level knowledge are accumulated by the sweat of our brows, and the more people we have to get to work pushing the frontier further, the better off we will all be, to say nothing of those who will inherit our legacy.