The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Solving the Immigration Puzzle


Matt Yglesias finds conservative objections to less-skilled immigration puzzling:

Liberals care not just about the size of the economic pie, but also its distribution. And it’s perfectly appropriate to put greater weight on the economic needs of poor people than rich people. But in the low-skilled immigration calculus the poorest people—the immigrants—are the ones who receive the largest benefit. To the extent that you have more immigrants you have both a stronger moral case for redistribution to low-income natives (greater objective needs) and a stronger practical case for redistribution to low-income natives (greater fiscal capacity) but the idea of avoiding a small harm to poor people by inflicting a much-larger harm on substantially poorer people makes very little sense to me. That’s especially true when the pie could be further expanded and the distributional effect counteracted by allowing for more skilled migrants—not just computer programmers but doctors and other professionals.

The conservative view of this manages to be even more puzzling, since in all other contexts conservatives strongly favor policy measures that increase the marginal return to capital and vehemently reject consideration of the distributional implications of such measures. Class war is a great evil to be avoided at all cost except in a case where the interests of the American working class can be putatively advanced by punishing the third world poor.

I think this puzzle is pretty easily resolved if you believe a few things:

1. You could believe that membership in a given nation-state community is not best understood as morally arbitrary, but rather that the citizens, and perhaps all lawful residents, of a given country are better understood as the “heirs” of a series of historical achievements. A bus driver in Flatbush earns far more than a bus driver in Varanasi, India, despite the fact that if anything, the work of the bus driver in Varansasi is more stressful and strenuous. This reflects decades of “capital deepening” that greatly magnifies the value of an hour of work in Brooklyn, a cumulative process to which millions of anonymous individuals — not just great entrepreneurs, industrialists, and inventors — have contributed. We could understand the productive potential that has arisen in America’s cities as the common inheritance of humanity, or as the common inheritance of the set of people we understand as Americans. Suffice it to say, it is not surprising that people who are uncomfortable with the idea of the intergenerational transmission of wealth within families find the intergenerational transmission of wealth within nation-state communities uncomfortable as well, as kin-based networks are far more substantial and “real” than nation-state communities. 

2. Or you could believe that membership in a nation-state community is significant because it embeds one in “the coercive network of state governance,” as Michael Blake has suggested. That is, even under a globally impartial liberal theory, one might conclude that a concern with relative economic shares makes sense only when we are asked to live under the same system of laws. This absolutely doesn’t preclude worrying about the absolute deprivation of those who live under other regimes. But if we ask people to live under a set of private property rules and there is a class of persons that finds itself getting the short end of the stick, it’s not crazy to be concerned about how this class of persons fares in relative terms, particularly if we believe that we have an obligation to establish some moral justification for this set of private property rules. This obligation doesn’t apply, or rather it doesn’t apply in the same way, to individuals who don’t live under the laws established by the regime in question. And so advancing the interests of the U.S. working class — understood as working to increase its relative economic share — really ought to take precedence over the interests of foreigners.

I tend to think about this through a historical lens. Specifically, the United States has a long history of entrenched, multi-generational black poverty. Extreme relative deprivation among African Americans is a really serious problem, and I think that we ought to devote more resources to combating it. I see this as a legitimacy issue, i.e., the legitimacy of the U.S. political order would be greatly enhanced if we could achieve greater economic and social uplift among blacks. The reason is that historically, black Americans have been on the “business end” of coercion, from the enslavement era to the segregation era to, in complicated and very different ways, the era of mass incarceration. African Americans have made a great deal of social and economic progress over the last century, but much more can and ought to be done. Welcoming less-skilled immigrants who’ve also experiened entrenched, multi-generational poverty in their own countries introduces a complex set of challenges for U.S. policymakers and social service providers. Learning how to address the unique challenges posed by impoverished Wolof- or Bengali-speakers who have only a very limited experience of urban life in their own countries (if any) is actually really, really hard, as many New York city public school teachers will tell you. In light of what we might think of as our inherited poverty challenge, I think it makes a lot of sense to be somewhat cautious about taking on new poverty challenges. 

One complication with this coercion framework is that some countries have more power than others in the international system. It is undoubtedly true that the United States shapes the regimes of many other countries, whether through the direct application of military coercion or through the exercise of our economic weight in trade negotiations. So it could be that we’re not dealing with bright lines, but rather with a continuum. This intuition is captured in a number of ways: the U.S. was far more open to Hmong refugees in the years following the U.S. military effort in Vietnam than to, say, Bihari refugees from Bangladesh’s 1971 war of liberation, for the obvious reason that many Americans felt an obligation to “do right” by the Hmong and other ethnic communities that had allied themselves with the U.S. Similarly, one of the arguments for offering unauthorized immigrants a path to legalization is that failures of U.S. policy and U.S. demand for immigrant labor are at least partially responsible for the size of this population. 

3. And most fuzzily — but not least importantly — you could believe that culture matters. Matt illustrates an economistic frame of mind, which is fair enough (it’s his job):

If immigration policy can be structured to make the welfare state more sustainable, then it’s a huge win for everyone. If immigration policy is structured to make the welfare state less sustainable, then there’s potentially a problem. The great thing about immigration is that since it uncontroversially increases GDP, it’s clearly possible to structure immigration policy in a fiscally beneficial way.

Here’s the thing: does redistribution ever work this smoothly? Less-skilled immigrants enable skilled workers to work longer hours, as it makes it cheaper for skilled workers to outsource household production. But instead of working longer hours, at least some skilled workers might choose more leisure. This clearly benefits the skilled workers in question, yet it doesn’t yield revenue that can be devoted to transfer payments. Much depends on the mix of taxes we choose, the demographic composition of the population (a workforce of parents with mortgages might have a lower elasticity of income than a workforce of single adults who love to party), etc. And what form will redistribution take? To some degree, this questions rests on culture.

Some societies place a strong emphasis on the value of work, and so they are less inclined to back unconditional cash transfers and more inclined to back work supports and wage subsidies. Immigration shapes these cultural preferences. Edward Glaeser and Alberto Alesina have observed that ethnoracial heterogeneity is associated with lower support for redistribution, and Robert Putnam has found that neighborhood diversity appears to be associated with lower levels of social capital. Policymakers can’t anticipate with any certitude how immigration will shape political preferences, as much depends on the quirks of how different cultural encounters play out and how quickly newcomers embrace the values and sensibilities of the native-born population. It could be that newcomers have superior values, and that the native-born population ought to get with the program. But it is hardly surprising that the native-born population might be disinclined to embrace this view, and that it will prefer that newcomers assimilate. This implies that it’s not crazy for members of the native-born population to select immigrants who are more likely to assimilate and to intermarry. There is some reason to believe that immigrants who match or exceed the average native-born skill level are more likely to flourish along these dimensions. 

Though I can’t imagine I’ll persuade Matt of the correctness or wisdom, or even the moral decency, of this framework, I hope it clears things up. 


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