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Every so often a video of Milton Friedman on the Phil Donahue Show goes viral. In it, the late Friedman reminds Donahue that even though “greed” has been abolished in the Soviet Union, it hasn’t disappeared. The desire for better things is a human condition that no economic policy, including communism, can eradicate.

Friedman’s argument came to mind while reading the excellent Bret Stephens’s case for Donald Trump in the New York Times. To be clear, Stephens loathes Trump and has “consistently opposed him.” At the same time, he writes that “You can’t defeat an opponent if you refuse to understand what makes him formidable,” which explains his efforts to make a case for Trump to a Times readership that largely shares Stephens’s viewpoint about Trump.

My view is that Stephens’s case isn’t terribly compelling. He leads with immigration. Oddly, he has long agreed with Trump about building a wall. He writes that “Many of Trump’s opponents refuse to see virtually unchecked migration as a problem for the West at all. Some of them see it as an opportunity to demonstrate their humanitarianism. Others look at it as an inexhaustible source of cheap labor.” Stephens misses here.

For one, it’s surely not lost on him that the minute the tired and hungry arrive in the United States, their value as workers soars simply because their productivity does. Labor prices aren’t a supply/demand concept as Stephens’s case imagines, rather they’re a consequence of investment. The productivity (and subsequently, pay) of the able and not-so-able-bodied skyrockets upon arrival here simply because in a relative, but also very real sense, there’s enormous investment behind most every job opening here. Think machinery, computers, and other forms of automation that lift human effort. Immigrants risk it all to get to the United States because they know they can fix the grinding poverty that instigated their migration. The cheap labor argument is economically empty, and it is first and foremost because migrants aren’t coming here to provide cheap labor.

It’s just a reminder that immigration is a market phenomenon, and easily the purest market phenomenon on earth. Which explains the Friedman anecdote that leads this write-up. The Soviet leadership naively felt it could stamp out greed or the desire for something better with collectivism, but it did no such thing. Applied to immigration, economic growth in the U.S. is massive. There’s your immigration story. So long as the U.S. economy booms, people not from the U.S. will do all they can to get here. The pay is good, and its gets better and better.

Stephens asserts that “A national culture is sustained by common memories, ideals, laws and a language — which newcomers should honor, adopt and learn as a requirement of entry.” It all sounds nice, but is utterly meaningless so long as the U.S. economy booms. All sorts of laws can be passed, walls can be built, but humans figure out a way to find the growth. Stephens’s analysis imagines that legislation and policy can overcome the desire for something better, but it can’t. Which means we can either secure the border by legalizing the flow of willing workers to all points in the U.S. where they’re needed (watch as they don’t bring wives, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, and grandparents if so), or crush the economy to restrain the desire of migrants to get here. About the latter, Trump did just that when he subsidized national lockdowns that he aggressively supported with a $3 trillion spending bill back in 2020. With tens of millions of Americans either out of work or unable to go to work, the borders emptied.

From there, Stephens believes Trump succeeded by understanding the cranky economic mood of the U.S. He writes that “when liberal elites insist that things are going well while overwhelming majorities of Americans say they are not,” that a political opportunity reveals itself. Stephens contends that “Trump’s unflattering view” of life in the U.S. in 2015 and beyond resonated. Here it seems Stephens overstates things. If life in the U.S. was as bad as Trump claimed, or as bad as Stephens and his policy-whisperer in Nicholas Eberstadt imagined, then why would the border and immigration have been an election issue? Think about it. Weak economies don’t generally attract those who want to improve their economic circumstances.

Stephens might reply per the above quote that things were going well for the upper strata, but not for the rest (something once again belied by migratory patterns), except that his analysis is arguably backwards. To see why, it’s useful to remember what happens when inequality between the 1 percent and everyone else is seriously widening. When it is, that’s the surest sign that luxuries and living standards formerly only enjoyed by the 1 percent are being democratized. It’s also the surest sign that opportunity for those outside the 1 percent is on the rise.

Where wealth is being created the fastest, so are all manner of jobs created for those not part of the 1 percent. The U.S. has always been a highly unequal country economically, which helpfully explains migration within the United States, but also migration into the United States from the outside. Put another way, the migrants aren’t headed to Detroit, but they are headed to the locales where the economically unequal are getting richest the fastest. It’s just a comment that if Stephens wants to pat Trump on the back for mining the economic misery of the electorate, that he should do while saying the problem was that the elites weren’t getting rich fast enough.

Next, Stephens writes that another factor informing the Trump vote was that “Much of the elite media, mostly liberal, became openly partisan in the 2016 election — and, in doing so, not only failed to understand why Trump won…” Oh come on! Lest Stephens et al forget, Trump voters aren’t exactly reading the New York Times or watching CNN or MSNBC, and they likely weren’t reading the editorial page that formerly employed Stephens either. Put another way, their media going into the election and beyond was partisan in the way that the media outlets are that feed non-Trump voters.

It all suggests to me that in trying to explain the Trump voter, or the why behind it, Stephens projected his own views onto voters who put into office someone he disdains. It didn’t read right. Too much projection, and too little acknowledgement that Trump’s opponent in Hillary Clinton was unappealing. There was also too little acknowledgement that Trump’s success wasn’t policy related as much as it was related to rhetorical style more than substance

Which is where this overly long write-up will stop. I didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, but did in 2020 because his polarizing style to varying degrees gave us limited government outcomes (the major exception being the lockdowns) that belied his frequently big-government rhetoric.

The problem was that in 2020, and with the coronavirus spreading, Trump stopped being Trump. That’s why he’s not presently in the final year of his second presidential term. Bret Stephens fails to make a compelling case for Trump simply because brilliant as he is, he still doesn’t know why Trump won in 2016, which means he doesn’t understand why Trump lost in 2020.   

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, President of the Parkview Institute, a senior fellow at the Market Institute, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors (www.appliedfinance.com). His latest book, set for release in April of 2024 and co-authored with Jack Ryan, is Bringing Adam Smith Into the American Home: A Case Against Homeownership

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