Bryan Caplan  

The Other Cause of Immigrant Idleness

A Gap in Public Choice?... The Open Borders Manifesto...
Happy Open Borders Day!  The world remains light-years from free migration, but the intellectual case and elite support for open borders continue to build.  In honor of the day, let's explore a little topic I call... "the other cause of immigrant idleness."

The global poor migrate to the First World, kiss the soil, then permanently go on welfare.  Idle immigrants: Nothing short of outright criminality does more to tarnish the image of immigration.  It smacks of ingratitude and parasitism.  And while the prevalence of immigrant idleness is overstated, it is a very real problem, especially in Europe.

As a cosmopolitan libertarian, my first reaction is point fingers at the welfare state.  If the problem is government subsidies for indefinite idleness, the solution is to curtail not immigration, but redistribution.  When the law allows it, plenty of natives permanently go on welfare, too.  Rhetorically sliding from the generic evils of the welfare state to the selective evils of immigrants is effective demagoguery, but fuzzy logic.

Yet on reflection, my first reaction misses a major part of the story.  Countries with ample redistribution also tend to have strict labor market regulations.  Despite their feel-good popularity, labor market regulations have a big negative side effect: unemployment. 

This collateral damage is clearest for regulations that explicitly push up wages: If the law requires a 10% raise, employers can reduce the damage to their bottom line by employing fewer workers.  But unless wages are perfectly flexible, any "pro-worker" regulation risks this disemployment effect.  If the law makes employers give workers free health insurance, and workers bitterly resent offsetting pay cuts, hiring fewer workers is employers' best remaining defense.

The moral: When you see an idle immigrant, you shouldn't jump to the conclusion that he's a lazy parasite.  There's another possibility: Labor regulations have priced him out of a job.  He's on welfare not because he doesn't want to work, but because he'd rather go on welfare than starve.

The same logic naturally holds for natives.  But the concern is especially relevant for immigrants.  The workers employers decide not to hire are not randomly selected.  When there's a surplus of labor, employers prefer workers who definitely won't have linguistic or cultural issues.  Workers who "need a chance to prove themselves" get hired last.  Furthermore, when there's a surplus of workers, the cost of outright bigotry sharply falls.*  If native employers feel a hint of antipathy for foreigners, wage floors encourage employers to act on that antipathy.

All this leads to a disturbing epiphany: Labor market regulation isn't just an alternative explanation for immigrant idleness.  It is a compelling alternative explanation because immigrants bear the brunt of labor market regulation's disemployment effect.  And contrary to a few silly economists, involuntary unemployment is no vacation.  It is a grave evil for jobless and society alike.  In fact, unemployment is an even greater social evil than it seems, because it gives xenophobia a veneer of justification.

* Why not just have two-tier wages for natives versus foreigners?  Discrimination laws aside, workers resent perceived horizontal inequities, leading to disruptive morale problems.

COMMENTS (8 to date)
Sieben writes:

I don't think anyone really wants to be lazy. Aside from basically wasting your life, it just doesn't feel good to be a parasite. It puts you at odds with your fellow man. But putting in a day's worth of hard work with your peers makes you feel at peace with your place in society.

john hare writes:

Sieben, As an employer, I have tried (unsuccessfully) to work people that do want to be lazy. Outside of work, I have dealt with large numbers of people that do want to be lazy. Projecting your personal integrity on others is a quick way to disappointment when the crunch comes.

RogC writes:

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Miguel Madeira writes:

"it is a very real problem, especially in Europe."

I suspect that in europe the problem is more with the sons and grandsons of the immigrants than with the imigrants themselves.

Slugger writes:

Something that I noted both in the US and in Europe is that illegals are often involved in the informal gray, black, and even criminal economy which is inherently hard to measure. In the restaurant business for instance there are dish washers and servers that seem green card deficient. In Europe, one sees street corner vendors of souvenir knockoffs that are surely undocumented. The pressure of being outside a society's formal network close off legimate work opportunities which I suspect would increase incentives to participate in drug and sex trades.

Floccina writes:
And contrary to a few silly economists, involuntary unemployment is no vacation.

Though for some wives of good earners being let go in an economic down turn and collecting can be preferred over not being let go.

Floccina writes:

Slugger's point reminds me that many people in the USA work for much less than minimum wage. There are various ways to get around the minimum wage laws (some are sales pure commission jobs selling things almost no one wants) and the resulting jobs tend be worse than getting a steady $5.00/hour.

vikingvista writes:

In defense of laziness, it is wrong to identify it with parasitism. Although there can be great joy in being productive or even in just being busy, I do enjoy the occasional extreme laziness that my productivity affords me. I imagine such enjoyment is even greater for those whose disutility of labor is greater. I suspect even that the pursuit of such laziness is one of the greater motivations of productive behavior. And who here is really concerned about the heir or early successful businessman who lives the remainder of his life in profound laziness?

It is unlikely that the chronically unemployed will ever experience the depth of laziness that I can on occasion afford, even though government subsidies permit some lesser degree of (though chronic) laziness. This is one reason why government subsidies hardly make a dent in the labor black market that government labor (and other) regulations create.

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