Time to Close the Door

ANDREW BARD SCHMOOKLER

September 28, 1993|By ANDREW BARD SCHMOOKLER

BROADWAY, VIRGINIA — Broadway, Virginia. -- For generations, it has generally been the bigoted and narrow-minded who have been the foes of immigration. Humane and broad-minded people have said with Emma Lazarus, ''Give me your tired, your poor . . .'' But the world has changed, and in the face of these changes, the broadest perspective requires us to say: ''It is time to close the door to substantial new immigration to the United States.''

The crucial change is the emergence of overpopulation as one of the most urgent problems besetting humankind. For every person alive on this planet when Emma Lazarus penned her famous words for the Statue of Liberty there are four people alive today.

People often say the United States still has lots of room. About this, I have my doubts: it seems generally to be those who profit from cheap domestic labor who argue that our continent still needs people, while most of the rest of us sense that congestion is already degrading the quality of our lives. But whether or not we still have room, it is no longer a service to the world as a whole for this country to act as a pressure valve for other nations that cannot provide for their people.

Freedom of movement of people in the world tends to work like the freedom of movement of investment capital. In an efficient market, money will tend to move until an equilibrium is reached in which the expected return on investment (given equal risk) is equivalent for any investment option. Similarly, if people are free to move away from hardship and privation and toward opportunity, there will be a tendency to move toward an equilibrium where conditions in any one place will equate with those in any other.

People are not as mobile, of course, as capital. Huge sums of money move daily around the earth in search of opportunity, while people are slowed down by their roots. But the tendency is there.

This movement toward equilibrium would not be a problem if our species were itself in equilibrium with the earth. But with the world population now almost doubling every generation, some very grim scenarios for widespread catastrophe are becoming increasingly visible.

If one believes humanity is on a collision course with the sustainable carrying capacity of the earth, then one must wish for us to confront the challenge of achieving balance with the earth sooner rather than later, when still more billions would be at the table. If one believes that a crisis of overpopulation will lead to serious ecological degradation before it is resolved, then one must wish for there to be some regions of the earth that escape ruination while our kind learns that even the civilized creature must live in balance with nature.

It is easy, of course, for people fortunate enough to be here already to say, ''Now it's time to close the door.'' As the grandson of immigrants, I know I might well be accused of simply wanting to ''pull up the ladder'' now that I and mine are provided for. Had the door to America been closed at the beginning of this century, my family would have suffered nightmares at the hands of Hitler or Stalin or both. And then there are the nightmares of famine and pestilence. I do not underestimate the misery that millions of would-be immigrants are trying to escape.

Under present circumstances, however, allowing a global equalization of population pressures simply threatens to make the ultimate population crisis, when it comes, more comprehensive and universal. At our perilous moment in the evolution of life on earth, some parts of the planet may have to serve, as it were, as continental Noah's arks to preserve a measure of ecological vitality and intact institutions and civility to survive the growing flood.

It is not, therefore, to protect our own private privilege, nor from a lack of compassion for the less fortunate, that we should pull up the ladder. The most important perspective is neither that of the haves nor of the have-nots. It is, rather, the perspective of the species and the planet as a whole.

Closing the door need not -- indeed it ought not -- mean turning our backs on the less fortunate peoples of the earth. Let us be generous in giving constructive aid to the poorest of peoples where they are. In particular, every sound measure to help poor countries bring their birth rates down should be fully funded. Temporary havens should be provided for those fleeing the terrors of the worst oppressors.

But for the sake of future generations the world over, our primary task must be to make sure we keep our own Ark in order.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of ''The Illusion of Choice: How the Market Economy Shapes Our Destiny.''

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