Last Updated:November 24 @ 07:08 pm

Barone: More Scared of History Than Destined To Repeat It

By Michael Barone

Traumas suffered by a society generations ago can still have a negative effect centuries later.

This is something Americans of a certain age should have no difficulty understanding. Half a century ago, we had to grapple with a dysfunctional and unjustifiable system of legally imposed racial segregation. It was a legacy of the Civil War a century before and of slavery before that.

Americans managed to reform that system, but it wasn't easy. Getting rid of policies that are the responses to long-ago traumas is a difficult business.

Two current instances, one facing America and the other facing Europe, come to mind. Both result from strong desires to learn from the mistakes made in the years following World War I -- the Great War, as it was called at the time -- which began nearly a century ago.

The first case involves American immigration policy. Many Americans were uneasy about the millions of immigrants who had flowed in from Eastern and Southern Europe in the years after the opening of Ellis Island in 1892. World War I showed them that government could control the flow of people, and in 1924, Congress cut off the flow of Ellis Islanders.

This came to seem an injustice, especially to their descendants, and in 1965, Congress rewrote immigration law to allow large-scale low-skill and family-reunification migration. It was an attempt to atone for a mistake made in the wake of war.

But like most reforms, it had unintended consequences. Large-scale immigration came not from Europe, as expected, but from Latin America, especially Mexico, and also from Asia. The United States failed to keep illegal immigrants from crossing the land border with Mexico, and Congress rejected a national identity card that might have prevented illegals from getting jobs. By 2007, we had 12 million immigrants, and the controversy over what to do about them frustrated attempts to rationalize immigration law.

Now some illegals are returning home, but we still have a system that favors extended-family reunification over the high-skill immigrants whom Canada and Australia have been favoring for years. Decisions made years ago leave us with a dysfunctional immigration system.

Europe's historic problems and current plight are worse than ours. The extremist nationalism that led to the two world wars left postwar reformers like Jean Monnet convinced that European unity was necessary to prevent a third.

European elites, with minimal consultation with voters, created the Common Market, originally a free-trade area, which became the European Community, in which Brussels busybodies override national authorities on all sorts of domestic legislation (must fruit be priced by kilo rather than pound?).

Not content with this, EC leaders in 1999 launched the euro, a single currency for 17 of the now 27 nations in the European Community.

The problem is that a single currency for 17 nations with different fiscal policies ensures that some nations' economies will overheat and produce financial collapse. Eurozone leaders tried to prevent that with rules mandating harmonious fiscal policy, but allowed cheating from the start.

I won't try to describe the successive rescue packages, which seem to inspire confidence for a few days and then are rejected in financial markets. My eyes glaze over reading the details.

What seems plain is that the euro isn't workable and that the protracted euro crisis is the inevitable product of policies that arose from the heartfelt yearning not to repeat the horrors of 1914 to 1945.

In looking at both of these painfully unresolved issues, it seems that a determination not to repeat the mistakes -- in some cases, the horrifying mistakes -- of the past has made policymakers and publics timid about adjusting to changes in the future.

America's illegal immigration problem could be alleviated with identification technology that no longer seems scary. And as the illegal numbers seem to be declining, we could leave that issue aside and provide more openings for the high-skill immigrants we plainly need.

As for the euro, by the 1990s, it was plain that Germany and France were never going to war again -- and that Brussels bureaucrats could never bludgeon or cajole them, much less their Mediterranean neighbors, into following identical economic or fiscal policies.

In the meantime, credit card technology and financial innovation have made it easier to deal with different currencies.

The lesson: Heed history, but keep an eye out for changes that make historical lessons obsolete.


Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.



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  1. ClarkCComment by ClarkC
    August 9, 2012 @ 9:51 am

    Cutting off immigration in 1924 was not a “mistake.” Mr. Barone is one of those who stubbornly clings to the neocon hope that assimilation will solve our immigration problems. History (which he claims to understand and learn from) tells us that periods of immigration reduction are exactly what permitted assimilation to be completed. When the immigrant flow is a tidal wave, immigrants group together in neighborhoods and stick to the old language and the old culture. When the flood is cut off, they feel the urge to assimilate over time. Those who succeed move on to better neighborhoods (a natural human instinct) and no one arrives to replace them.

    The liberal reading of the issue (shared by mainstream “conservatives” such as Mr. Barone and many other columnists) is that immigration waves produced “backlashes” that led to immigration reductions. As good modern liberals (even if we falsely label ourselves “conservatives”), we should all be ashamed of these anti-immigrant backlashes and hence we should be ashamed of the ensuing immigration reductions. We should also ignore the role played by the reductions in the ensuing assimilation, and blather on about how we once assimilated immigrants and by golly we can do it again (impossible without turning off the spigot).

    I don’t buy Mr. Barone’s incorrect understanding of history, nor his incorrect understanding of how assimilation occurred.

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  2. middlegroundComment by middleground
    August 9, 2012 @ 11:10 am

    Immigration when done in massive groups is difficult to assimilate.

    Ireland reportedly had 8 million people in the 1830s when the potato blight hit and the South had 4 million Blacks laboring as slaves. The principal food in Ireland was the potato, but overnight throughout the entire land the potatoes turned to rotting mush and England and the US were suddenly faced with a huge wave of destitute immigrants who because of malnutrition were also suffering from numerous diseases. In 1865 four million Blacks were suddenly released into a labor market already staggering under the weight of this flood of Irish immigrants, the US, which had a population of only 31 million in 1865, couldn’t cope, and when a society can’t cope it divides itself into special interest groups. Remnants of these divisions are still with us, but why did the Irish seemingly adjust better than the Blacks? The answer is probably that the Irish dribbled in shipload by shipload and moved to where they could find employment as individuals, whereas 4 million unskilled Blacks had been suddenly dumped into an agricultural economy destroyed by war and massive debt where no farmer could afford to pay wages and the cotton market was now no longer a Southern monopoly. Sadly, the Blacks, unlike the Irish, didn’t think of themselves as individuals, but as Blacks and that has made assimilation difficult, and provided race manipulators with a tool to appeal to them as a victim group. This is a country whose Constitution was written for individuals who would no longer need a king and government to tell them what was “right” and what to do, but this concept has been under attack and the current administration obviously thinks people need to be directed by government rather than a inner gyroscope of acceptable behavior.

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