June 20, 2008

Promoted to the Wall Street Journal editorial board just three years ago, the young journalist Jason Riley has sought to prove his bona fides, and then some, by publishing a new book whose title reads like a parody of the standard Journal position on immigration”€”Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders.

Like most of the immigrationists at the Journal, Riley bases his arguments not so much on principles of a natural right to migration as on promises that mass immigration will “€œgrow the economy”€ and make us all rich, if we”€™re only big enough to get over our nativism and turn off Lou Dobbs. 

Riley wants the “€œfree market”€ to regulate immigration policy, and thus actually criticizes things like last summer’s “€œcomprehensive immigration reform”€ proposal on the grounds that they”€™re too restrictive with their measures favoring immigrants of higher skill and education levels. 

Needless to say, Riley and his new volume quickly caught the eye of the Cato Institute, and Wednesday it hosted a “€œforum“€ on Riley’s new book, with commentary by open-borders advocate Michael Barone and moderated by open-borders advocate Dan Griswald. In this short review, it’s worth focusing in on one of his central arguments for “€œletting them in.”€     

Open-borders advocate have always been fond of gesturing towards history, usually in some cloying reminder that “€œwe”€™re all descended from immigrants”€ blah blah blah. But Riley does something better. He points out that during the major waves of Irish immigration in the 19th century, many restrictionists claimed that the low- to no-skilled Paddies were not only undesirable but unnecessary”€”the rapidly industrializing economy needed high-skill manufacturing labor not a bunch of peasants. Well, the Irish came anyway and, proving the naysayers wrong, quickly found employment.

The Paddies did the jobs average Americans wouldn”€™t”€”indeed, as Riley highlights, dangerous jobs that Ameircans wouldn”€™t force on their slaves (who were, of course, valuable property). At the forum, Riley quoted from a letter in which a riverboat employer talked of some particularly awful and perilous job he”€™d delegate to the Irishmen, who were numerous and expendable and wouldn”€™t be missed if they fell overboard.        

Riley brings this up as a counterpoint to the oft-heard refrain “€œthey’re taking our jobs!”€ leveled at immigrants by people who don”€™t much want to “€œlet them in.” In some cases this is clearly true, but as Riley points out”€”and here he’s right”€”no economy has a fixed amount of jobs, that is, positions that either go to a native or an illegal. To the contrary, just as the Irish did the really terrible jobs many restricitonists didn”€™t think would crop up, today’s Latinos are in effect creating new forms of employment.  

Twenty-five years ago, most middle-class dads would go out and mow the lawn on weekends; few would even consider hiring some fruffy landscaping company to do the work. Now many of these same guys can easily afford a team of Latinos equipped with leaf-blowers and weed-wackers. Similarly, it seems like every time I return to my hometown of Dallas, TX, I see more and more valet-parking options at Yuppie restaurants and hotspots, and invariably, the jobs are being done by Latinos.

None of these things would have existed if “€œthey”€ weren”€™t here. But then one might ask when the labor mushrooming might actually stop: As more and more no-skilled, poor Latinos enter the country each day, will we have them not just park our cars but perhaps carry us to them, Cleopatra-style? Why not bring them into the restaurant and pay them 2 bucks an hour to feed us?

Mass immigration expands the labor supply”€”and this new supply creates new demand , for all kinds of things. Our economy gets bigger, sure, but then is bigger always better?  

In his groundbreaking 1992 essay, “Time to Rethink Immgraiton?,” Peter Brimelow writes,

Audiences always burst out laughing at one apparently gagless scene in the hit movie “€œBack to the Future”€: the time-transported hero drives up to a gas station in the 1950s, and an army of uniformed attendants leaps forth to pump the gas, clean his windshield, fill his tires, polish his hubcaps, offer him maps, and so on. The joke was in the shock of self-recognition. It was only yesterday”€”and yet completely forgotten, so accustomed is everyone to self-service [and now credit-card swiping].

Now there’s credit-card swiping. 

What’s important here is that with the current mass immigration from Latin America, the whole trend of labor-saving capital investment is in effect reversed“€”in agriculture, dining, house keeping, and lawn care, Latinos are not simply doing the jobs Americans won”€™t, they”€™re making possible jobs that would not otherwise exist in an advanced economy. I doubt gas stations will once again feature five full-time employees for each vehicle, but what’s important is that this is again becoming possible.

Jason Riley can talk all he wants about how the economy is “€œgrowing,”€ but what native citizens experience is an economy whose fundamentals have not changed and which was working just fine beforehand, but which now features 20 million newcomers doing tasks most natives aren”€™t exactly sure really need be done. 

Riley claims that he wants the “€œfree market to regulate the labor supply”€ and that those now arguing that our post-industrial economy doesn”€™t need low-skill Latinos will be proved just as wrong as those 19th-century know-nothings who didn”€™t think industrial America needed the Irish. But this is to put the cart well before the horse. With open borders, the labor supply is not regulated by some reified “€œfree market,”€ nor even by the actual needs of the economy. The labor supply is regulated by those who actually come, which is, in turn, dependent upon other factors, like geography and the state of the immigrants’ home societies, that have little to nothing to do with our own economic situation.

Highly educated Indians who arrive quickly expand, and complicate, the labor market for software enigeneers; Latinos have brought on a boom in lawncare; if boatloads of Swiss refugees start landing on our shores, we’ll soon have fascinating new markets for the ultra cheap manufacturing of cuckoo clocks. (OK, with this last one, I might have indulged in a cruel national stereotype.) The point is, whether “€œletting them in”€ is desirable or not all depends on who “€œthey”€ are.  


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