One of the things that helps, I suppose, in coughing up a (hopefully) thoughtful post or two every day is having an imagination that tends to grasp a piece of information and immediately slip sideways with it. Thus, when reading a history piece about the pre-Great War US and an opinion piece about illegal immigration coincided, I found myself wondering: What would things have been like if, in 1905, there had been a vast country just to the north of the US which was operation at current US levels of technology and affluence?
In 1905 much of our economy was still agricultural, and "blue collar" work was grim and low paid by today's standards. We talk about the growing gap between rich and poor today, but in most ways that's got nothing on the gap that existed in 1905.
The US wasn't in famine in 1905, it wasn't poverty stricken, but if you lived on a poor family farm it wouldn't necessarily be unusual for your diet to be highly monotonous. Porridge for breakfast, lunch and dinner dominated by bread. Vegetable and fruit were actually seasonal, unless they were jarred or canned. Here in the modern US people go on protein only diets because carbs do too good a job of providing a lot of energy in a small package -- for most of human history people have lived on carbs most of the time for the very same reason.
My grandfather, who grew up in rural New Mexico and joined the navy in 1945, talks about how the thing that amazed him when he joined up was the amount of food they were given. There was as much food as you wanted, and there were a couple different kinds at each meal. You didn't get that in a small mining town in NM in the 30s and 40s.
Before the Great Depression, the early part of this century was in some ways a pretty wide-open, optimistic place to be, for all of what in these days would seem like deprivation. But what if, just across the border, was untold wealth? Wealth that you just couldn't imagine. So much wealth that by laboring in the fields illegally you could make ten times what you could make working back at home.
That kind of temptation would be hard to resist. The dreamers, the ambitious, those looking for a quick buck, the adventurers -- a whole mix of different people, good and bad, hard working and not would have headed up to see what it was all about and try to get a piece of it. The rich would have gone there on vacation and for medical care.
Clearly, there are differences. The countries from which streams of immigrants want to come into our country are not in fact 100 years behind us in technology, though in some economic and political senses they may be nearly a century behind. But it seems an interesting thought experiment.
In order to pioneer, I think you need in some sense to feel like you are being the first. Pioneering something that was already pioneered by others provides no rush and sense of accomplishment. Indeed, when you have yet to pioneer something which for others is common place, I think there's a strong feeling that you should just be able to go get it, or be given it. Why should a whole country have to struggle and strain to attain something which has become so ordinary as to be unappreciated elsewhere? Why shouldn't it just happen without any work at that point?
Well, of course, things don't just happen without any work. Old roads still need work to travel down. That's just how the world works.
But I think we can count ourselves very, very fortunate that we were able to go into new territory first. It certainly wasn't easy, but it avoids a whole set of neurosis and loss of valuable talent that countries must face when they still need to boldly go where most other people went 50+ years before.