George Will’s WaPo column on immigration reform has quite a few weaknesses (at least in my opinion, your mileage may vary), but the one phrase the struck me was his ending:
Opposition to immigration because the economy supposedly cannot generate sufficient jobs is similar defeatism. Zero-sum reasoning about a fixed quantity of American opportunity is for a United States in a defensive crouch, which is not for conservatives.
For the most part, the debate on immigration (legal or illegal) has focused on the American perspective. Perhaps most Americans believe this issue is more settled in the rest of the developed world. If so, then they couldn’t be more wrong. The current Australian government has instituted a policy of intercepting boats of immigrants and sending them back to their port of origin (Andrew Bolt). Swiss voters just passed a referendum calling for a cap on total immigrants from the European Union (of which Switzerland is not a member), while Germans would narrowly support a cap on all immigration (Open Europe).
Then there’s the United Kingdom, whose government put this on the road:
Suffice to say, the “defensive crouch” is fairly popular in the developed world.
Now, if I were a restrictionist on immigration (and I was from about 2002 until 2012), I would simply wrap up here. Were I an anti-restrictionist (and I was that, too, before 2002), I’d likely respond with a little “Americans don’t do that” jingoism and call it a day. These days, however, I find the question why this is happening to be more interesting, and telling.
Truth be told, America is different in one regard to the rest of the developed world: this is a much bigger debate on the political right here than elsewhere. The American right usually has two major pieces of its worldview come into conflict when immigration comes up: cultural cohesion and the dynamism of the free market. Immigration is, to a large extent, the labor side of of the globalization cost (free trade is the product side). Will is correct in that the idea that the American economy can no longer handle freedom of movement and entry into its market place is not a talking point for conservatives, but rather an indictment of them. The rest of the developed world has little patience for the free market, so its easier for right-wingers there to be all-out restrictionists.
That said, this does lead to the one glaring flaw in most immigration reform proposals (and a missing part of the debate): how can immigration reform make labor more productive? After all, a more productive labor force will see wages rise (in real terms of goods affordable) no matter what the size or composition of the labor force. Yet there is practically no discussion of this in America (or, truth be told, anywhere else). Otherwise, the focus might be on the following questions….
What are we doing to encourage entrepreneurs to come to America?
What labor shortages in the American economy (such as, health care) can be alleviated via immigration reform?
How can we use our immigration policies to take advantage of capital flight in areas around the world, so that those who own that capital will feel more welcome here (along with their capital, of course)?
In other words, how can we use immigration reform as a supply-side economic opportunity, rather than merely an argument about Keynesian “aggregate demand”?
The relative silence on these questions should be an embarrassment to supporters and opponents of immigration reform. Not all immigrants are from south of the border (and what’s it to you if they did?); not all of them are poor; and not all of them will become welfare-state costs (and for those who do, I recommend local and state governments look to the entity actually at fault – the federal government – to demand recompense, but that’s for another post). On the flip side, immigration reform should not be about lighting bonfires of strawmen to prove one’s moral superiority; it should not be about ethnic politics; and it should not be about lining up recruits for culture wars in other areas.
Immigration reform should be about how newcomers to America can increase Americans’ prosperity, and what the government can do to make that more likely.
The rest – all the rest – is just noise.
Cross-posted to Bearing Drift