A Man for No Season in Particular
“Every so often,” said the Capitalist, “I have the sense that you all don’t hate me quite as much as you should.”
The Humanitarian shrugged. “I’m lousy at hating anyone. Even you.”
Undaunted, the Capitalist took a deep breath and began.
“I have a plan to set things right. The steps are easy to describe, easy to do, and very likely to work. But we will never take them.”
“You’re going to make me ask, aren’t you?” said the Humanitarian.
“Oh no,” said the Capitalist. “I’m just going to shoot my mouth off.”
“Be glad he doesn’t charge for it,” said the Cynic.
“Just for today, it’s free.”
“Just for today, huh?” said the Academic.
“Step one,” said the Capitalist, “Open the borders to anyone who wishes to enter, on the condition that they register with the government.”
“Libertarians are going to hate that,” said the Academic. “And they’re your base.”
“Yes and yes,” said the Capitalist. “Now to piss off everyone else. All by itself, opening the borders would do enormous good. A recent estimate says that if every country opened its borders, world GDP would roughly double. Letting laborers chase higher productivity has huge, enormous, gigantic payoffs. We’re leaving all those gains on the table right now even as we wallow in an economic crisis.”
“The gains would mostly go to the migrants,” said the Malthusian.
“In other words,” said the Capitalist, “the government helps the most unfortunate members of our polity, the newest, the lowest-status, the people with the most to lose. Downright Rawlsian, isn’t it?”
“What makes you think you can just go around treating people… equally…. like that?” asked the Cynic.
“People have an equal ability to feel suffering,” said the Humanitarian. “That’s why we treat them equally in good times, and why we attend to the neediest first when times go bad.”
“We can all suffer equally?” said the Stoic. “That’s a new one by me.”
“Perhaps,” said the Cynic, “the followers of the stoic philosophy should be permitted by the state to suffer even more.”
“Perhaps,” said the Stoic, “I should remind you of Hobbes’ theory: We are all made equal by our equal ability to inflict suffering.”
“Still, why would any immigrant in their right mind register with the government?” asked the Cynic. “Best case, it’s another form to fill out. Worst case, the electorate changes its mind and tells the migra to round ’em all up.”
“Which brings me to step two,” said the Capitalist. “Everyone who registers will also be given title to a modestly sized piece of federal land. Have you seen how much federal land there is? It’s a giant honkin’ chunk of the West, almost all of Nevada, the large majority of Alaska, and lots and lots in other places too.”
“Not our precious federal forests!” said the Epicurean.
“Aren’t those lands often already in development?” asked the Skeptic.
“Indeed they are,” said the Capitalist, “just inefficiently and in a highly roundabout system involving a dozen or so federal agencies and countless special rules for this or that. Most of it isn’t what you’d call ‘precious national forest,’ either. Carve out Yellowstone et cetera, and we still have plenty to entice people into the registry, into land ownership, and into caring about the fate of our nation. Ultimately, into citizenship.”
“Would they be productive as farmers?” asked the Stoic.
“If not, they could sell the land, and whatever they got would tide them over until they found a job. Illegal immigration would vanish overnight, because doing it legally would pay so well. We’d have to be careful about apportioning the land by value, but I think we could manage. And even if we didn’t — it’s a gift horse. No one’s forcing anyone to take it.”
“Egalitarians are going to hate that,” said the Academic. “And when you’ve lost them…”
“Have I lost them too? Excellent!” said the Capitalist. “Economists say the corporations have a glut of capital but are afraid to do anything with it. The obvious solution is to add in the other factors of production — land and labor — for cheaper. And no one could say that the corporations had been given a handout. They’d have to buy that land from the newcomers just like anyone else.”
“What if the immigrants take the cash, spend it all, and end up on welfare?” said the Skeptic.
“For three reasons, I don’t expect many land-welfare bums. First, a gift of land isn’t going to appeal to people who just want to go on welfare anyway. Second, in the longer term, racial diversity is negatively correlated with welfare benefits, both at the state level and internationally. Everywhere you look, more diverse societies have smaller welfare states. If we increase our racial diversity, we can expect less in the way of welfare overall.”
“An interesting dilemma for the left,” said the Skeptic. “A strong welfare state or racial diversity, but not both.”
“The same for the right,” said the Cynic. “Cultural purity brings creeping socialism.”
“Who gets the worst of it?” asked the Skeptic.
“Libertarians,” said the Cynic. “They’re always wrong about everything.”
“Ahem,” said the Capitalist. “My third reason not to fear a welfare glut is that if a lot of the immigrants sold, the land would be turned over to large-scale productive uses — forestry, farming, ranching, mining. And with those, we get the blue-collar jobs everyone wants to have back.”
“Do they really?” asked the Skeptic. “Or would they complain about the land giveaway?”
“Sometimes signalling isn’t about signalling,” said the Cynic.
“True enough,” said the Capitalist. “But all this new development would require a small army of white-collar workers too — lawyers, accountants, managers, clerks, and the like. Everyone would get back to work, including the folks who’ve been here all along and don’t want or can’t do hard labor. It’s not even like it’s a new plan. Know how the West was won? Illegally.”
“People would be really unhappy about losing the federal lands,” said the Skeptic. “They might value those more than an economic recovery.”
“Merely from the endowment effect,” said the Malthusian, “which is precious to everyone. Give someone something — anything — and they’ll value it more just for the sheer fact of having it. That ‘something’ can be totally crappy, too, like the current economy. They’ll overvalue the status quo anyway.”
“Now, there are certainly problems with this not-fully-baked plan,” said the Capitalist. “But I don’t think they are what you think they are. The country would get browner (for all the harm that would do). Its public spaces would decrease (for all the virgin wilds they are right now). Those spaces would go to folks not in our tribe, at least not by today’s reckoning. From there, they’d go to nasty evil big corporations — but only if they paid fair market value. There would be lots of new development (which is what ending a recession means, and which left-liberals still mysteriously find objectionable, at least in good times). Many of the new jobs would again go to foreigners. And let’s not forget, they would register with the government, just to creep out the libertarians. Everyone wins, and everyone’s sore about it.
“So where’s the goopy half-baked part?” asked the Malthusian. “I mean, by your lights.”
“Easy,” said the Capitalist. “My plan is not designed to fix the economy. Take note: I never said that it would. It’s designed to wound everyone’s fake interests, and to get everyone to notice it. In the meantime, it also wounds almost everyone’s true interests, and I’m guessing no one notices it. The real problem with my plan is this: The value of land would plummet, at least temporarily, and the damage it would do to the real estate market would almost certainly swallow up everything else, as we just saw with the last big real estate devaluation. But that’s hardly what springs to mind, is it?”
“I think you hate the poor,” said the Cynic.