The myth of the empty continent

By , Richard D. Lamm is governor of Colorado.

People claim that America is still an "empty continent" and can benefit from more people. I govern part of that empty space -- what people have to better understand is that it is empty for very real reasons. It has no water. America's capacity to absorb additional population isn't a matter of space -- it's matter of resources. One hundred miles from Denver, one can still see the wagon tracks of the Oregon Trail, laid down 140 years ago. One hundred and forty years, and they have never been washed away or grown over. They snake out across the desert, a mute symbol that they were part of the route, not a destination.

AS water is to the West, so energy is to our entire nation. America has had, for virtually all its history, a culture of abundance. Walt Whitman called it "the endless freight train and the bulging storehouse." It is my thesis that until America gets a stable source of energy we, tragically but realistically, are going to see slow or no economic growth. This will cause an unfortunate but predictable set of tensions in the American political system. The public policy of scarcity will be vastly different from the politics of abundance. It will, and should, cause a dramatic rethinking of American public policy.

As we temper justice with mercy, so must we temper mercy with common sense. The America of 8 percent unemployment, 30 percent unemployment among minority youth, serious energy shortages, tax revolts, and slow economic growth should not, and cannot, have the expectations nor the policies that we had as an empty continent.

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Nowhere is this seen as clearly as in the immigration issue. When America was an empty continent, immigration was a blessing. New people operating on a new frontier created not only great wealth but what Frederick Jackson Turner called a "new man," more optimistic, more ambitious, less restrained that his European antecedents.

America was an incredible safety valve for population pressures. Between 1840 and 1930, at least 50 million people emigrated from Europe. It is hard to overestimated what this meant to the Old World. In the past century, 25 million persons emigrated from Italy alone, an incredible numbers when compared to Italy's present population of 57 million. Demographer Kingsley Davis estimates that Europe, as a whole, would have had a population of 1.08 billion in 1970 rather than 650 million if it had not been for emigration.

But the American frontier is gone, replaced by an America of limits. Yet America continues to receive twice as many immigrants as the rest of the world combined. We have, in the words of Attorney General William French Smith, "lost control over our own borders." Immigration now accounts for approximately one-half of our national growth rate. America's economy last year created only 2 million new jobs, but between 1 million and 1 1/2 million new immigrants entered America legally or illegally.

The America of gasoline shortages, resources restraints, inflation, 8 percent unemployment, and slow economic growth is vastly different from the England the perils of allowing immigration beyond our capacity to absorb and assimilate.

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