A Reason Immigrants Excel
tldr: It's Plausible Deniability
It’s common to hear wonderment about the fact that poor immigrants often do significantly better than American-born Americans in life outcomes, despite having significant disadvantages (arriving with almost no money, no family network, no credit, and barely speaking the language).
The primary reason is, of course, selection effects. Only highly motivated, risk-tolerant, and capable people choose to leave their social net with almost nothing to start anew in a foreign country. This is already well covered, so I won’t get into it.
A secondary reason is plausible ignorance of the regulatory regime.
Last year’s (quite good) movie “Everything Everywhere All At Once” is charming, hilarious, features great action and good family dynamics. It also contains a major subplot wherein the immigrant family’s business is threatened by the crushing regulatory boot of IRS-stooge Jamie Lee Curtis. This subplot aptly demonstrates what every successful immigrant eventually discovers - their 2nd greatest asset is ignorance of the regulatory state.
Actual Ignorance of Regulation Makes Starting Seem Possible
Immigrants have often fully bought into the idea that America is a land of opportunity, and all you have to do is work hard and provide value to have a good life. They will often come here and simply do the thing without hiring a lawyer, filing for a thousand permits, and begging the entrenched power structure for permission to act. It will not occur to them that the government has an interest in preventing them from maintaining or improving their own property. Or that the government would have opinions on their business decisions. This allows them to get started actually earning income and developing their skills. Without knowledge of all the obstacles the government puts in their way, they simply don’t encounter them (at first).
Anyone familiar with the regulatory jungle ahead will realize they have months or years of delays, wrangling with a half dozen bureaucrats, and thousands of dollars of fees/lawyer tribute before them. At least dozens of hours of legal labor before them before they can even start. For those who are aware of this mountain of BS, it’s common (and likely rational) to simply give up, saying “Screw it, I guess I’ll try to get a corporate job and do wage labor for someone else.” Indeed, that’s half the purpose of all these obstacles.
Actual Ignorance of Regulation Routes Around Some Regulation
When a successful business is up and running, the government is less likely to simply destroy it. In fact, in most cases when something of value is built, the government is reasonably likely to not simply destroy it. It may be illegal for you to upgrade your sliding glass door to a newer, nicer, and more energy-efficient sliding glass door without a permit. But if you do it anyway, the regulators will rarely require you to destroy the new door and install a crappy old one. The fine they levy will be more than worth the paperwork labor saved and the months of time you didn’t have to wait.
Likewise, a business that would have been aborted in the first trimester by regulatory burdens will not be murdered once it’s already been up and running for a couple years. The fines will hurt, but immigrants expect unpredictable financial shocks, and will have some way of paying the fines through savings or credit. A regulation deferred is a regulation defied.
The most important thing any domestic-born American can learn from this is that it’s always better to ask forgiveness than permission. But Americans will have a significantly harder time of this than immigrants, because…
Plausible Deniability of Regulatory Knowledge is Key
Immigrants are allowed to have some level of ignorance of our culture. They are new here. Their ways are not our ways. They speak with strong accents, and even basic communication can be difficult. They may not be able to read at a high enough level to grasp legalese. If they didn’t know that sub-clause C of sub-section II of the rider on the addendum disallowed them from repairing a fence without approval from city hall, well, can you blame them?
It is assumed the immigrants were not acting in malice or deliberately thumbing their nose at the law, they simply didn’t know. In addition, good-natured law-abiding immigrants are underdogs, and Americans have a soft spot in their hearts for the earnest simple folk just trying to do right. As long as they apologize and pay the fines, the regulators will often let the offense slide. Everyone wants the underdog to succeed.
This is also seen in Everything Everywhere All At Once, as the initially cruel Jamie Lee Curtis warms up to the family and lets them off without total destruction.
This is not the case for American-born people. They Should Have Known Better. They can read, they were given every advantage, and they still refuse to play by the rules? Unacceptable. They’re significantly more likely to be treated harshly, especially if they don’t have family connections to cover them.
Plausible Deniability Remains Potent Even When Ignorance Has Passed
Eventually the immigrant wises up to the obstacles of the government. Often quickly after the first encounter, in fact. The difficulty of interacting with an immigrant can continue to serve as a protective barrier, though.
Many regulations are unnecessary, and quite a few are just plain stupid, and everyone knows this. But everyone raised in this culture is expected to play along. It’s part of the social contract. You do not point out the Emperor has no clothes!
A newcomer plausibly does not know about these non-obvious customs. I have on more than one occasion seen an immigrant family member protest a dumb regulation they were aware of but ignored. They said (roughly) “Please excuse me, but I do not understand how this works. Can you explain to me what has happened? What is the rule I broke? What is reason for this rule?”
When faced with the embarrassment of trying to explain a dumb rule that is counter to common sense—especially to someone with a strong accent that is already difficult to communicate with—sometimes people will simply say “You know what, nevermind. Just don’t do this again in the future.”
It doesn’t always work, but it works far more often than it would for someone who is clearly American. The accent does wonders. Keeping strange customs helps too. The plausible deniability is key to allowing others to be lax with cultural taboos/regulations.
What’s A Guy To Do?
It is a damning indictment of our society that being able to reliably escape from a fraction of its regulation is so much of an advantage that it overwhelms advantages like having family, money, and speaking the freakin’ language. I don’t know what to do about this in the face of political realities. Maybe move somewhere where you are the weird foreign minority. Maybe Mars.