More Timely Than Ever!

Friday, February 24, 2023

TGIF: Immigration Foes, What's the Beef?

Bryan Caplan

If people are going to hate on immigrants, they should at least get their stories straight. Do immigrants take our jobs or do they sponge off us through welfare? Today, let's talk about jobs.

Recently I was listening to Spiked's Brendan O'Neill interview Batya Ugar-Sargon, the left/right-populist assistant editor at Newsweek, when I heard say: "The elites love low-wage slave labor imported by the cartels to work service industry jobs, that they would rather have cheap labor than have to pay more for it."

This is nutty working-class populism in its most uninhibited form. Ungar-Sargon would have us believe that people who risk life and limb thinking they're choosing to escape political-economic hellholes to achieve better lives for themselves and their families in America are just modern-day Kunta Kintes! They're not people; they're imports! That might come as news to them.

Ungar-Sargon is talking about both legal and so-called illegal immigrants. Interestingly, though, it seems to have escaped her notice that the only immigrants who could potentially be treated like slaves are those branded illegal by the U.S. government. They are vulnerable to abuse precisely because they have to keep themselves out of the clutches of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Legal immigrants can call the cops. Being put on ice has a different meaning these days.

A bit later in the interview she said,

Black Americans have paid a huge price for our essentially open border for the last 40 years. Over and over businesses would much rather hire illegal immigrants than hire black Americans, and so they've literally paid for up to 40 to 50 percent of wages just sacrificed on the altar of progressive pieties about importing people from failed socialist states. They're very angry at that.

That 40-to-50 percent claim astounded me because I've never heard anything like it before. Neither have the two experts I asked, guys who know the immigration-related statistics as well as anybody and better than most. In their view, Ungar-Sargon made it up. She did not tell O'Neill where she got the statistic, and -- shamefully -- he did not ask.

I wonder why Ungar-Sargon singled out black Americans. She claims to reject identity politics in favor of class politics. Is she pandering? Since biology provides no genetic basis for categorizing people by skin tone or other such features -- since the human species does not consist of three to five genetically distinct groups called "races" -- who does Ungar-Sargon or her anonymous source include in the category of "black Americans"? But I digress.

Ungar-Sargon sounds like Bernie Sanders, a strong contender for the least impressive person in American politics, who says he opposes open borders because "the Koch brothers" favor it. That may be a reason, but it's not a good one. What else does he oppose because a rich person favors it? Brushing teeth after meals?

Ungar-Sargon, Sanders, and the others in this camp have their own version of the alt-right's replacement theory, don't they? The "cartels," she tells us, want to bring "slave labor" to America to replace native workers simply to save money. They want the people's (mis)representatives to stop this at all costs. But this is nonsense. Immigrants, especially ones without government papers, do jobs that Americans think are beneath them, particularly when the government supports them.

Make no mistake about what this position says: natives have a superior, if not the only, claim to the opportunities available through voluntary exchange in America. "They take our jobs" is an assertion of a native-only property right in jobs that has no rational basis in morality or economics. It's an ugly "blood and soil" sentiment, which does not suit a free society. Not only that, it cruelly relegates people born elsewhere to lives of misery, poverty, and oppression -- needlessly so because immigration, like every consensual transaction, is win-win. So keeping immigrants out not only hurts them; it also hurts us! Immigrants not only consume; they also produce and even start businesses and hire people, natives included.

True, if an immigrant is hired in America, natives who hoped for that job will be disappointed. But that sort of "negative externality" is a feature of life, not of immigration. People lose jobs in the short run through innovations in technology and business organization, not to mention fickle consumers. Who would outlaw innovation or consumer freedom on that count? The fact is, as history demonstrates, people who are thus harmed will benefit after a brief adjustment to change -- if the government keeps out of the way.

But let's also understand what Ludwig von Mises meant when he wrote in Human Action, in the section he called "The Harmony of the 'Rightly Understood' Interests": "The fact that my fellow man wants to acquire shoes as I do, does not make it harder for me to get shoes, but easier." In other words, mass markets with their economies of scale and falling costs of production, provide everyone with an ever-greater abundance of affordable goods and services. It was, after all, the emergence of the market order that led to mass production for the first time in history.

What Mises was saying about consumption obviously applies to production too because it's the flip side of the coin. Producers hire workers. The availability of a larger labor force furnishes entrepreneurs with opportunities for new and better enterprises that could not have existed with a smaller workforce. Products and services that were beyond reach yesterday are available today. In a society unencumbered by government intervention (unlike the one we have), the increasing demand for jobs more or less creates its own supply.

As for wages, let's see what a bona fide expert says. George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan (with illustrations by Zach Weinersmith) addresses the matter in their graphic nonfiction work, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration." Opponents of free immigration should hold their tongues until they are prepared to answer Caplan's multidimensional case.

As for wages, Caplan writes:

Even economists who emphasize the negative effects of immigration on native wages report small -- and mixed -- effects. [George] Borjas and [Lawrence] Katz ... estimate that, in the long run, extra Mexican migration from 1980-2000 reduced U.S. native dropouts' wages by a grand total of 4.8%, and college graduates' wages by 0.5%. They also conclude, however, that Mexican immigration increased the wages of native high school graduates by 1.2% and those with some college by 0.7%.


Immigration increased labor demand through two channels --- one obvious, the other subtle. The obvious: More immigrants means more potential customers. The subtle: Since migration increases foreigners' productivity [a very important point! -- SR], they have more resources to offer in the marketplace. As a rule, sellers profit from more and richer customers.


How can native workers possibly profit when labor supply rises? Through specialization and trade. When the supply of low-skilled workers goes up, so does the demand for higher-skilled workers to manage them. When non-English-speaking immigrants increase the supply of cooks and dishwashers, this increases the demand for English-speaking waiters.

"But," Caplan's stick-figure interlocutor asks, "won't all these low-skilled immigrants depress our country's average standard of living?"

Caplan replies: "Almost certainly. But there's no need to worry. Your fears rest on the dreaded ... ARITHMETIC FALLACY!" He illustrates the fallacy by asking us to imagine that a group of little kids enters a room full of NBA players. The average height of the group will shrink, of course, but has anyone actually shrunk? Of course not.

"The lesson: When the makeup of the population is changing, averages are deeply misleading. The average can easily fall, even though everyone is better off!" Understanding basic statistics is necessary simply to protect yourself from number-wielding fraudsters.

So, Batya Ungar-Sargon, Bernie Sanders, Brendan O'Neill, et al., stop losing sleep over what will happen to native workers if we respect the universal natural right of everyone, regardless of birthplace, to seek a better life. Beyond the very short run, treedom benefits everyone. To appreciate this point, economist Caplan notes that if people worldwide were free to move to where they would be most productive, world output  "could easily double." He writes, "estimated gains range from 50 to 150% of gross world product." In other words, "economically, open borders is like getting an extra ... seventy-five Manhattans a year."

Respecting everyone's liberty doesn't cost. It pays -- big time!

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