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To Many, America Still Is a Place of Opportunity (Unless Progressives Destroy That, Too)

Nothing illustrates the demand for America more than the wave of immigrants risking their safety to enter its shores. Readers are fed a daily diet of negative stories about America’s impending collapse; however, alarmist tendencies conceal the complexity of the American experience. America excels at attracting citizens from across the globe due to its superb ability to mobilize resources and institutions to support individual achievement.

Immigrants find America appealing because of the perception and reality that in the United States even powerful people will be prosecuted for impropriety. When citizens believe in the impartiality of institutions, they are more likely to attribute success to competence and work hard to achieve their goals. America’s civic culture is intolerant of corruption and inefficiency in the corridors of power and a robust civic culture promotes good governance.

But in many countries, corruption is a widespread social norm and recalcitrant officials are rarely punished for misconduct. A case in point is Jamaica, where allegations of corruption are likened to a “nine-day wonder,” since after ranting for a few days, people usually forget about such cases. Immigrants strongly feel that migrating to America will improve their life chances because America is a fairer society.

In some societies, the forces of nepotism and clientelism continue to block opportunities for upward social mobility by rewarding family members and friends at the expense of competent individuals. Few appreciate the toll such forces can have on society like Latin Americans. By failing to reward competence, these arrangements demotivate productive employees and increase the cost of doing business, since the most capable people are not filling sensitive roles.

Juan Felipe Riano, in a recent paper, presents Colombia as a textbook case of what he calls “Bureaucratic Nepotism.” Riano shows that 38 percent of civil servants in Colombia have a relative in public administration, 18 percent have family connections to public sector officials, and 11 percent work with a family member based in the same agency. Connected people were also likely to receive higher salaries and their qualifications were overlooked when connected to high-level officials.

Evidently, these employment tactics will spell doom for the provision of public goods. Bureaucrats are responsible for administering public resources; however, when the people selected to do so are unqualified, the delivery of public goods will be subpar. Immigrants are cognizant that unsavory policies have been institutionalized in their home countries so they are motivated to migrate to America where the standards required to maintain public office are higher.

Immigrants also know that American businesses have a penchant for performance and excellence. Corruption is usually depicted as a problem plaguing the public sector, but it equally depresses the energy of the private sector. For years, it baffled onlookers that people who refused to work in Jamaica would migrate to the United States to secure two or three jobs and perform at an exceptional level.

Kenneth Carter unpacked this mystery in his 1997 book Why Workers Won’t Work: The Worker in a Developing Economy: A Case Study of Jamaica.

By surveying Jamaican employees, Carter found that in Jamaica there was a widespread sentiment that promotion was linked to feeding the boss with gossip about colleagues or stroking his ego. According to his research managers inculcated a toxic environment that was hostile to productivity. Since reward was not correlated with productivity, it was cheaper for employees to curtail productivity than to be exceptional considering the limited opportunity for self-improvement.

People flock to America to exploit an environment where their efforts will be appreciated. Immigrants would hesitate to migrate to America if they were properly incentivized in their country. Furthermore, America ranks number one on the intelligence capital index thus making it the best place in the world to actualize talent. Most of the leading venture capitalists are located in America and it is still home to some of the most cutting edge universities.

Even more surprising is that America leads in redistribution with research asserting that the “United States stands out as the country that redistributes the greatest fraction of the national income to the bottom 50 percent.” Moreover, despite the grumbling that America is no longer the land of opportunity, economic analysis opines that “there is greater equality of opportunity today than in the past, mostly because opportunity was never that equal.”

Media outlets are replete with criticisms of America, but the truth is that America is still an admirable country on many levels. Because migrants believe in the American Dream and its endurance, they eagerly rush to its shores despite encountering danger.