Guest Workers and The Ultimate Liberal Aim

Thanks to Kerry, there has been a great deal of stimulating cross-blog discussion of the desirability of an expanded American guest worker program compared to other policies. As far as I can tell, a good number of smart, well-intentioned folks see a big guest worker program as a second-best substitute for an increase in permanent migration and the supply of citizenships. (For example, Tim Lee here.) I think this is mistaken. While I also would like to see the United States mint millions of new passports, I think this is an entirely separate issue from the right of individuals to cross borders and enter into productive agreements with other human beings. It may be the case that the current public understanding of migration confuses these logically separate issues. And it may therefore be the case that the status quo, on-the-ground politics of immigration requires some kind of strategic trade-off between a new guest worker program and an upsurge in permanent residents and citizens. I have my doubts, but I really don't know. The point I want to get across is that if we currently do have to make such a choice politically, we're probably thinking about this complex of issues sloppily, and ought to do better starting now.

I suspect that some of us are talking past one another because of differences in political aims. My long-term aim regarding migration is the best feasible approximation of a single global labor market–a world in which people are free to travel the world in search of the most valued use for their skills. That this idea should seem shocking to some (most?) of us reveals how deeply-seated are our essentially illiberal nationalistic impulses. But there is nothing new here. Mises had this all nailed down tight in his chapter on “Liberal Foreign Policy” in Liberalism, written eighty years ago. A politics aimed at world peace requires an integrated world of peaceful cooperation. Here is your bracing refresher statement of ideals:

The starting point of liberal thought is the recognition of the value and importance of human cooperation, and the whole policy and program of liberalism is designed to serve the purpose of maintaining the existing state of mutual cooperation among the members of the human race and of extending it still further. The ultimate ideal envisioned by liberalism is the perfect cooperation of all mankind, taking place peacefully and without friction. Liberal thinking always has the whole of humanity in view and not just parts. It does not stop at limited groups; it does not end at the border of the village, of the province, of the nation, or of the continent. Its thinking is cosmopolitan and ecumenical: it takes in all men and the whole world. Liberalism is, in this sense, humanism; and the liberal, a citizen of the world, a cosmopolite.

As I've argued before, I think this conception of cosmopolitan liberalism almost got lost in the Cold War, during which cosmopolitan, internationalist ideals were largely ceded to the communists while liberalism rode out the red tide by tying itself defensively to nationalist feelings in those nations with a more or less liberal identity. The Cold War has been over for almost twenty years now. It is time to get back to the project of securing world peace through extending the scope of mutual cooperation. It is time to get back to the cosmopolitan ideals of liberal humanism.

So that's the backdrop. Against it, questions of the American interest are instrumental, not ultimate. “What's in it for us?” is such a pressing question because Americans need to see how their interests are compatible with the aim of a free, just, and peaceful world. For a liberal, it is not surprising that they are.

The U.S. has a serious problem regulating movement over the southern border by Mexicans and Central Americans. The main source of the problem is high U.S. labor demand and wage rates. The policy most likely to solve this problem is not a militarized border, which, as Douglas Massey explains, is completely counterproductive.

The net effect of our harsh border policy has been to increase the rate of undocumented population growth in the U.S. By lowering the rate of return migration to Mexico while leaving the rate of in-migration largely unaffected, it has increased net migration from around 180,000 persons per year in the late 1970s and early 1980s to around 368,000 per year over the past decade.

The increase in border enforcement has actually reduced the probability of apprehending undocumented border crossers to a 40-year low by pushing the flows into remote territory where fewer officers are stationed. But it has also tripled the death rate.

It is logically contradictory, and impossible in practical terms, to create a single North American economy that integrates markets for goods, capital, raw materials, services, and information but somehow keeps labor markets separate.

Nor is liberalization of permanent residencies and citizenships the ticket. There are simply too many people who want to work in the U.S., and the political will to hand out that many Green Cards just isn't there. Even a significant liberalization on the path-to-citizenship front isn't going to do much to regulate the flow of labor across the southern border. This is a real issue we need to address. Moreover, a large number of the people now crossing the border illegally don't especially want to become Americans and would like to go home after a while. A large guest-worker program aimed specifically at these workers really is the best bet.

So a guest-worker program would have a real short-term benefit to the U.S. in terms of increased border security, return migration, and labor market efficiency. The medium-term benefit of a large guest worker program aimed at our neighbors to the south is this: Once the program is established and has demonstrated its efficacy, it will be possible to make a persuasive case for further North American labor-market integration, pushing toward a common North American labor market. In the long term, large regional labor markets, such as the EU and a North American market (and a South American market, an African market, an Asian market, etc.) can begin to integrate, moving us toward the ultimate liberal aim of an open world of mutual cooperation.

Thinking of this issue primarily in terms of the distribution of legal permissions to stay for good is a recipe for confusion. We need to build the infrastructure of a well-regulated system in which people are free to come and go in a dynamic global economy where the demand for various forms of human capital comes and goes. Thinking about in terms of Green Cards and passports seems to me to take for granted that if people are going to cross a border to work, they are going to do it just once, and to stay.

I Dated a Guest Worker

Kerry's spate of recent writing on immigration is making me think differently.

First, prior to reading her interview with Laura Agustin, I had not occurred to me to think of a Mexican gardner as an “expat” or that relatively poor people might also be interested in traveling across borders out of curiosity or a sense of adventure. That really is shameful. My inner Kant, my inner Christian, recoils at my failure to see persons as persons as persons, all with reasons worth taking seriously, all very like my own.

Second, Kerry's latest reply to Megan makes me realize that I have dated a guest worker! She was an au pair from Germany, in the U.S. under a J1 “exchange visitors” visa. She worked for a living, taking care of children. She came because she wanted to see America. A year later, she left, having lived the expat life while helping raise some small girls. Like most transient guest workers, she left America no worse. On the contrary. Now, if you think this case is different because she was (still is!) German, then clearly your problem isn't really with guest workers, is it?

Guests in the Machine

If you have yet to read Kerry's Reason cover on guest-worker programs, you're falling behind. It is simply the best thing anyone has lately done on guest-worker programs, beautifully written and brilliantly reasoned. This part is phenomenal:

As Americans struggle with the implications of immigrants who come to live but not to stay, their single greatest objection to a guest worker plan may have nothing to do with migrant well-being. The gains for immigrants are demonstrably too big and the need too great to lend credibility to those who cast all guest workers as victims. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, migrants send $62.3 billion in remittances to Latin American and the Caribbean last year, keeping 8 to 10 million families above the poverty line. The unexplored opportunities for mutually advantageous cooperation are massive and undeniable. But it seems dirty. “It simply feels exploitative and un-American to allow migrants in without giving them a shot at becoming citizens,” writes Jacob Weisberg in Slate.

The economist Lawrence Summers, a former president of Harvard, has expressed this objection in somewhat loftier terms. In a critique of Harvard’s Pritchett, Summers explains: “Lant’s kind of compassionate libertarianism carries the risk of a morally problematic coarsening that we resist in many other ways.” The problem with guest worker programs, in other words, has nothing to do with the good of guest workers, and everything to do with the moral harm that proximate poverty might cause to their hosts. Allowing workers entry to the United States might be mutually beneficial for employer and employee, all the while producing corrosive cultural externalities. Summers seems to think that guest workers will inure Americans to a system of class stratification and undermine a shared, naive sense of global solidarity.

The moral calculus, then, is to be weighed between the welfare of potential workers and the preservation of an idealized American narrative. Does it reflect better on the American character to lock poor people out than to permit them entry on limited terms? Guest worker programs do clash with deeply held mythologies about our relationship to the global poor. We live in a state of relative political equality nested awkwardly within a deeply unequal world, and it can seem better, kinder, to keep the inequality outside, walling it off and keeping our hands clean. Perhaps American egalitarianism, like a dress too precious to be worn, is a value too dear to expose to the real world. As the essayist Richard Rodriguez, himself the son of Mexican immigrants, has written, “Americans prefer unknowing.”

Do you prefer unknowing? Read it.

Actual Evidence about Immigrant Assimilation

At VoxEu Esther Duflo outlines a new study on assimilation of Muslim immigrants in Britain by LSE's Alan Manning and Sanchari Roy:

Manning and Roy rightly conclude that, on the basis of available evidence, Huntington’s pessimism – that Muslim immigrants will prove “indigestible” to non-Muslim societies, seems unjustified indeed. If anything, the constant reminders of “native” Europeans that there is “us” and “them”, the new, scary, Muslim immigrants and their offspring may do substantially more to create a rift than any religious or cultural feeling these immigrants have brought with them and transferred to their children.

So chill.

Designer Anchors

Brad Pitt is leading an initiative to build a bunch of houses designed by fancy architecture firms in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. That's nice. But why not build these houses elsewhere, perhaps a place less likely to flood, a place with jobs?

Responding to critics who question the wisdom of rebuilding at all in an area likely to get hit again, Mr. Pitt said: “My first answer to that is, talk to the people who’ve lived there and have raised their kids there. People are needing to get back in their homes.”

I don't think this helps Pitt's case, exactly. People ought to be encouraged to move where the opportunities are, not enticed with designer accommodations to stay in a struggling place prone to disaster. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where we're from can, through some good old-fashioned emotional alchemy, create pride from deprivation. When that's all you've got—or all you can get—that's a great thing indeed. But our narratives of place and tribe are too often an identity-arresting form of self-indulgence that can consign our kids to second-class lives.  We may fear that we will disintegrate or disappear if we leave the neighborhood, quit the church, forsake our roots, sell out, but we won't. Those fears are deep, terrifying, and almost completely unfounded. Our allegiance to our stories and our enchanted places do not save us so much as comfort us against the specters of uncertainty and enable us to feel righteous in inaction. People are not needing to get back in their homes.

Writing about Clive Crook's clear-headed essay on the downsides of homeownership, a, umm…, certain Economist blogger said something that could just as well apply to Pitt's project.

Subsidising homeownership through huge tax breaks not only reinforces a cultural ethos in which home ownership is considered central to the American Dream, but also reinforces pernicious communitarian myths of the profound romance in seeing nothing and going nowhere.

This is an exceedingly unpopular thought, but it is a necessary one. Often, when we discourage people from leaving, we discourage them from thriving. When a better life is a bus ride away, it is obviously inhuman to slap a tax on tickets. And just how different from that is a subsidy to stay? I'll be very pleased if the people who are given these houses thrive, but I also won't be astonished if their lives aren't transformed by their sleek new designer anchors.