The Humanitarian Case for Immigration
Over at TAC, I blogged earlier this week on a particularly bad study calling for a more open immigration policy. One commentator, addressing my points that immigration (of low-skill workers) depresses wages and increases inequality, raised a good question, which I think is about as fundamental as a question can get:
Is it not true that illegals have better lives working for admittedly meager wages under relatively poor conditions in the US than they would in Latin America? I understand the author’s primary focus on US domestic policy, but I don’t think it serves his argument to bring up humanitarian issues while ignoring them when they fall outside American jurisdiction.
In response, I absolutely do not deny that immigration to the developed world is a boon to immigrants. On the contrary, the humanitarian case for immigration is possibly the most persuasive one there is for open borders.
It is especially persuasive in light of Gregory Clark’s extraordinary book, A Farewell of Alms. To put Clark’s thesis as bluntly as possible (and exaggerating somewhat): Institutions don’t matter; people do. That is to say, the allegedly superior institutions of the developed world do not explain global wealth disparities. On the contrary, says Clark, the reason England (followed by other nations, but not by all) escaped the Malthusian trap in which most of world remains mired to this day is that, over centuries, Englishmen developed the requisite virtues for industrial development. England inaugurated the Industrial Revolution because it’s full of Englishmen.
Clark’s thesis is quite subversive. It implies that it is futile to try to get Third World countries to adopt what Westerners believe is the correct policy mix. Clark comes right out and says that the best way we know to lift Third Worlders out of poverty is to allow them to immigrate to the developed world. I am convinced that he is right. If you want to alleviate poverty, it is largely a waste of time to hand out mosquito nets, build damns or send over macroeconomists to advise on policy. Instead, you should lobby the developed world to let in more immigrants.
A couple points in response to this argument. First, the costs of immigration — mostly in the form of depressed wages — are disproportionately born by the working class. It is a bit awkward for the elites who make policy in this country to be asking others to make the sacrifices to achieve their humanitarian ends. (I use the term “elites” advisedly. The United States does not show a lot of social mobility these days, a situation which is unlikely to change. It therefore make sense to identify a relatively stable, partially hereditary governing class.)
Second, the Third World is quite vast. Mexico, which currently supplies more immigrants to the U.S. than any other country, is actually a relatively wealthy country. We have no idea whether a wave of Third World immigration even larger than the current wave would ultimately kill the goose the laid the golden egg. Clark’s insights into the ultimate causes of economic development are still in their infancy. Prudence dictates that, before permanently altering the composition of developed societies, we wait until we understand the drivers of economic growth better.
Finally, the humanitarian case for immigration demands that we reconceive the very purpose of American government. A lot of people who reflect on the question find that there is no reason that the United States government (or American voters) should favor its own citizens over the citizens of other countries. Is an American somehow more deserving than Guatemalan? If not, they say, then policy should consider what’s best for the entire world rather than just the United States.
Still, this remains a difficult perspective to swallow. Economic policy, for example, still focuses on jobs and incomes for Americans. Politicians and opinion-mongers rarely take into consideration the well-being of citizens of other countries. Even those formally opposed to nationalism routinely critique policy based solely on whether it is good for Americans. Nationalism is simply assumed.
I won’t get into the matter here, but personally I think nationalism is a “useful atavism” that should be defended. In the meantime, it should at least be recognized that the humanitarian case for immigration does require jettisoning the premise that American policy should be made for Americans.