Bryan Caplan  

Immigration Restrictions as Affirmative Action

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One of my closest conservative friends is chronically angry about (a) immigration and (b) affirmative action.  The irony is that the immigration restrictions he so passionately favors are affirmative action - for native-born workers.

Advocates of standard affirmative action see the low percentage of minorities that employers would hire in a free market.  They hastily infer that employers' bad motives are reason why minorities fare poorly.  And they respond by bullying employers to hire more minorities - and scoffing at non-minorities who object that they're being treated unfairly.

Advocates of immigration restrictions, similarly, see the low percentage of natives that employers would hire in a free market.  They hastily infer that employers' bad motives are the reason why natives fare poorly.  And they respond by bullying employers to hire more natives - and scoffing at foreigners who object that they're being treated unfairly.

The key difference, of course, is that immigration restrictions are vastly harsher than standard affirmative action policies.  The dream of standard affirmative action policies is proportionality: If blacks are 13% of the population, blacks should have 13% of every job in the country.  The dream of immigration restrictions, in contrast, is total exclusion: If natives are 5% of the world population, natives should have 100% of every job in the country.  Neither policy achieves these dreams, but the severity of the enforcement matches the magnitude of the desired social engineering. 

We enforce standard affirmative action with sporadic lawsuits against employers.  The government occasionally plays the role of the plaintiff, but for the most part we wait for an employee to file a grievance.  The worse-case scenario: The employer pays hefty financial damages and rehires the plaintiff.  With immigration laws, in contrast, enforcement focuses on foreign workers.  They endure the daily indignities of unpersonhood.  And when they're caught, they face a rather different worst-case scenario: deportation to Third World misery.

Conservatives usually think that "oppressed minorities" should spend a lot less time complaining about unfair treatment and a lot more time improving their skills and work ethic.  Fair point, but the same holds for native-born Americans who complain that immigrants are taking their jobs.  Employers aren't saints, but they have a strong financial incentive to hire the best person for the job.  If they don't think that person is you, they're probably right.



COMMENTS (12 to date)
Nathan Smith writes:

In general, once one starts to think about immigration issues at all, it's hard to take the liberal goody-two-shoes seriously. To me, the position of affirmative-action-critic-cum-immigration-critic is a lot less ludicrous than that of the affirmative-action-advocate-cum-immigration-critic (or the advocate of affirmative action who doesn't embrace open borders). Think about it. The affirmative action advocate wants to use a very subtle and invasive kind of government coercion in order to better the economic and social conditions of minorities that has most of the income level that white Americans do, yet they also want to use the crudest kinds of government coercion to shut out from all the opportunities, economic, social, political, religious, etc., of American life, people who by any measure are far worse off than American minorities. To imagine someone trying to formulate a theory of justice that could support such policies is so ridiculous it's funny.

Ultimately, if you take justice seriously at all, you just have to support open borders. Most people aren't serious enough about justice to do that, but they don't want to abandon justice completely. So those of us on the ethical side of the immigration question need to be on the lookout for any occasions on which people show some interest in or commitment to some principle of justice and grab that, and show them that their own principles imply open borders-- as you're doing in this post. Good job.

Henry writes:

These look like straw men to me - at least to the extent that they ignore all but one reason each for supporting each policy.

Some people support affirmative action because of perceived benefits not internalised in wage rates (e.g. enhancing the number of minority role models, or societal egalitarianism). Nonetheless, even if the vast majority is due to belief in employer motives, this certainly does not appear to be the case for immigration restrictionists. The "immigrants steal our jobs" mantra makes no claim that employers are bigoted against natives. In fact, most immigrant restrictionists would probably freely admit that immigrants can do a similar quality job for a much lower wage. They just want to stop them to raise native wages, thinking that this must be good for the country as a whole.


If blacks are 13% of the population, blacks should have 13% of every job in the country. The dream of immigration restrictions, in contrast, is total exclusion: If natives are 5% of the world population, natives should have 100% of every job in the country.

Apples and oranges (national population vs world population). If immigration restrictionists use national population as well, their dream is also proportional - immigrants should have 0% of the population and 0% of the jobs.

Nonetheless, I don't think your analogy is totally flawed, just some of your arguments. You could expose hypocrisy by focusing on people who oppose affirmative action on grounds like "jobs should always go to most qualified candidate" and counter the rebuttal of "but people in other countries aren't candidates" with an example of a job reserved for blacks, so that whites can't even apply for it.

Mercer writes:

Restrictions on immigration are only viewed as a form of affirmative action by people who do not believe in the the concepts of the citizenship and the nation state. Bryan you can look at the present economic situation in Europe to see an example of what happens when elites follow your values and try to ignore the importance of nation states.

Kenneth A. Regas writes:

What Mercer wrote. The nation state is a huge concept to give up: the only successful large-scale form of governance ever invented and the unique home of the concepts of freedom that allow its critics to survive unimprisoned. The burden of proof borne by these critics is very, very high.

Ken

Steve Sailer writes:

It's simple arithmetic: Because American citizens make up only 4% of the people on Earth, American citizens should have only 4% of the jobs in America.

matt writes:

Come on Brian, don't you get tired of wrestling straw-men? Put your simplistic utopian arguments to the test, debate someone on this issue publicly, and not someone who agrees with you pretending to take the other side. Debate Steve Sailer!

Kasen Wally writes:

Like it or not illegal immigrants will work for less and work harder to maintain their positions. In a market where a college education is in most cases required for specialized work, laborious jobs with minimum wages are all that remain. Like stated above the ramifications of being caught as an immigrant are much more severe. People preform for incentives, and "deportation to a third world country" is a fairly strong one. This means that the quality of labor is higher while a substantially lower income is accepted without question. For Natives this is not the case, their labor is not incentivized on the same level, and to ask more of them requires higher pay. Like it or not. For employers immigrants are quality workers and if they are removed from the picture, the market would be flooded with labor positions that can only be filled by native workers. In turn these natives form unions, request higher pay and provide a lesser quality of labor at the expense of the employer. At this point immigrants are a part of our market and should not be torn out of the picture, especially when our economic state is as fragile as it is. Would their removal not upset the "balance" we already have?

JPIrving writes:

@Mercer

The only reason non westerners comit 99% of rapes in Oslo (google it) and half of crime in Sweden is because the welfare state makes them. There are no meaningful externalities to bringing alien cultures into the same space, "we" just need to "become them". You understand.

Bill writes:

Funny thing about it is that the majority of the immigrants are from ethnic groups that benefit from affirmative action. Unemployment itself has negative externalities, so it might make sense to have native-born workers do jobs, even if they're technically not the most efficient at doing them, rather than bringing in immigrants, especially since bringing in immigrants is elective, but kicking out citizens is typically a no-no. Additionally, there are arguments against mass immigration other than jobs, such as keeping the welfare state manageable, avoiding an overburdened infrastructure, and maintaining social cohesion.

Finally, the comparison of the supposed proportionality of affirmative action to the supposed non-proportionality of a preference for native-born workers, when native-born workers are a small minority of workers worldwide, would only work if this preference for US citizens in jobs was supposed to apply worldwide. Except it doesn't. People who want preference for US citizens in US jobs don't claim that Chinese, Mexican, or Indian employers should hire Americans to work in those countries over their own citizens (and most of the time they don't). The whole justification is different. Affirmative action says that if each race is not proportionally represented in a particular occupation, it automatically means that it's the result of discrimination. A preference for native-born workers in American jobs simply recognizes that employers benefit from the rule of law and the relative business-friendliness of Americans, and therefore Americans should receive consideration before random foreigners in hiring for jobs.

Isabel Archer writes:

Conservatives usually think that "oppressed minorities" should spend a lot less time complaining about unfair treatment and a lot more time improving their skills and work ethic. Fair point, but the same holds for native-born Americans who complain that immigrants are taking their jobs. Employers aren't saints, but they have a strong financial incentive to hire the best person for the job. If they don't think that person is you, they're probably right.

Yes, but it's worth noting here that minimum-wage laws effectively price some lower-skilled native-born workers out of the market. Other laws intended to protect workers also artificially drive up the cost of hiring some native-born workers; it's not surprising that some employers therefore decide to circumvent the law and hire cheaper illegal workers. This element of the situation isn't the fault of the low-skilled native-born worker. It's the fault of the politicians who have enacted laws intended to protect lower-skilled workers that sometimes wind up harming them instead.

Evan writes:

@Steve Sailor

It's simple arithmetic: Because American citizens make up only 4% of the people on Earth, American citizens should have only 4% of the jobs in America.
The apparent force of that analogy comes from the implicit assumption many people have that there are a finite amount of jobs. This assumption has been disproved time and time again.

Think about it. There are more people in America today than there were on the whole planet a few thousand years ago. If there were a finite number of jobs, the vast majority of America's population would be unemployed.

If, hypothetically, America were to close its borders and then increase its population to six billion by native births alone, do you really think that 5,700,000,000 of those new citizens would be unemployed?

@matt

Come on Brian, don't you get tired of wrestling straw-men? Put your simplistic utopian arguments to the test, debate someone on this issue publicly, and not someone who agrees with you pretending to take the other side. Debate Steve Sailer!
If Bryan publicly debated Steve Sailer the court of public opinion would award Bryan the victory as soon as Sailer started talking about race and IQ. I'm not saying that's right, Sailer's views deserve a fairer hearing than that. But that's what would happen.

Ari T writes:

"If Bryan publicly debated Steve Sailer the court of public opinion would award Bryan the victory as soon as Sailer started talking about race and IQ. I'm not saying that's right, Sailer's views deserve a fairer hearing than that. But that's what would happen."
If we had a prediction market about the economic effects of immigration, I think Steve and anyone who opposes immigration because of IQ or any other reason, would quickly learn the immense power of comparative advantage. Or lose their money, and then learn it. Its easy to talk here at Econlog because talk is cheap, and you are not accountable.

IQ probably affects efficiency of some economic institutions but on aggregate comparative advantage just steamrolls over these.

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