Monday, May 18, 2009

Issues that Conservatives Need to Drop #1--Illegal Immigration


Let me explain, since I can hear you all sharpening your knives right now. My position on illegal immigration is undergoing kind of a change lately, and what I have to say now would have been heresy to me two months ago. What's changed? Well, I started thinking about the issue in practical terms rather than "right and wrong" terms.

Until just a short while ago, I was solidly-anti illegal immigrant, still am, frankly. Though I believed then and believe now that immigrant workers are a boon, not a hindrance to any economy. Just ask Singapore, or the UAE, or any country that ever existed. I knew the arguments against amnesty. The perverse incentives it would create, how it ignored the rule of law, how it could foster terrorism, etc. In a way I still respect those arguments. My position on illegal immigration is not a black and white one, and I've become more pragmatic and less dogmatic as time goes by.

Firstly, under no circumstances should we ignore the importance of the rule of law. The law is not, and should not be, something we can change on a whim, but something rock solid we can rely on as the rules of the game. Not a social engineering attempt to bring about a particular outcome, but rules that we all are aware of and understand. See Hayek's The Road to Serfdom for more info on the importance of the rule of law.

Secondly, we could spend millions or billions on a wall along our Southern border, and spend more and more on border patrol, but all resources are scarce, they are finite, we have to make choices about what to spend tax payer money on, and we have to make tradeoffs. We cannot rub out 99% of all illegal immigration, but at a high cost. What is the acceptable amount of illegal immigration? I don't know, anymore than I could tell you the acceptable about of other crimes to tolerate. We do not spend every penny of police resources on fighting one particular crime for this very reason, because different crimes require attention and resources have to be divided up in the most effective way possible. The lesson is that we may build a wall--it may be a good idea, I don't know--but it won't end illegal immigration. They could just switch to boats/rafts/floating timber, which would require an increase in Coast Guard spending. Not to mention tunnels dug under the border wall, makeshift aircraft flown over it, etc.

Think I'm exaggerating? Even the Berlin Wall was porous.

Rather than spend a lot of money building a wall on whatever border is giving us trouble, a better use of resources might be to change the incentives. If Mexico continues to become a lawless, anarchic, state, if the government collapses, it could actually be a good idea to invade Mexico militarily and install a real government there, but that's an idea for the future, if and when Mexico reaches such a state that it is an undeniable threat to the US (not militarily, but in terms of anarchy, crime, gang violence, etc.).

Thirdly, America benefits economically from immigration, legal or illegal, period. (don't think I've forgotten about how illegal immigrants take advantage of ERs and the welfare state, I'm getting to that) That's right, we benefit. Fight it all you want, but you're fighting hundreds of years of well-documented, proven economic theory. Low cost labor right here in this country benefits everybody. You benefit by paying less than you otherwise would for groceries, produce, fast food, various services, etc. They aren't "stealing our jobs," they are taking jobs that employers have trouble filling even during this recession, because Americans by and large aren't willing to take a lot of these low-level grunt jobs. Being a wealthier country gives us more disposable time, it also makes us want more disposable income to buy nifty things, all of which makes labor relatively more expensive as compared to capital which is relatively abundant.

The decrease in Americans hired in no-skill and low-skill jobs isn't something to lament, or a sign of increasing poverty, it is something to celebrate, and a sign of increasing prosperity. A hundred years ago most people's productivity, and hence their wages, were determined by physical strength and fortitude. Thank God that's no longer the case, it makes more people more employable, and makes a person's employability more dependent on what they themselves put into their own human capital, rather than in what God gave them in the brawn department. An incontinent wheelchair-bound woman isn't screwed, like she would have been in 1900. She can get an education and a higher-paying job that doesn't require legs or strong arms. An old man can keep his job even after his back gives out and he can't lift what he used to. In fact, during this recession, it is the younger and the stronger workers, and the men, who are losing the most jobs. This leaves us with a temporary inconvenience because the economy never stays in one place or in one state, but it makes us better in the long run. It's called creative destruction, a term coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter.

The lesson is that illegal immigrants, and for that matter people in other countries where jobs are being "out-sourced," are not stealing anything from us. They make us better off by lowering the production costs of the goods and services we buy, hence lowering the market price, hence having the same effect of raising our income. This is how economic growth happens. That it happens to involve people from other countries is totally irrelevent. We are not "losing jobs," our recession is due to a collapsed credit bubble, not factories in China. There's a good reason you won't find many economists--you know, people who study the economy and who deal with facts rather than emotions or ignorant preconceptions--on the side of the anti-out-sourcing crowd.

Fourth, as for the illegal immigrants' use of the welfare state, yes, unless a particular immigrant is paying taxes (and many if not most of them are) then it needs to be stopped. In fact that is where conservatives will have the most success in not only getting voters on their side but in slowing down the tide of immigrants who want to come here not to work but to live off the tax-payers (though they are in the minority, as I understand it).

Getting back to the rule of law, this is an issue we should remain firm on. However, we didn't decide to ignore the law for decade after decade. Others did that. But we have to live with their decision. Sometimes you can simply undo a past decision, other times you cannot simply undo a past decision. Mass deportation sounds like an attractive option, and it may be, but knowing our government it would be done at the cost of $100,000 per deportee, spend years tied up in the courts before it happened, prolong this issue, and in the long run do nothing.

My proposal is.....amnesty. I would have called myself a traitor just a few months ago. But let me explain my reasoning. It's purely pragmatic. What do you call an illegal alien who has been granted the right to stay here by Congress? Answer: a legal immigrant. Like it or not, but if such amnesty should be granted, we would have nothing to complain about. After all, despite that person's past crimes, they would have been pardoned and granted legal status by the book, i.e. by the proper authority: Congress. Amnesty is just as much a legal, by-the-book procedure as mass deportation would be (or for that matter the Presidential pardoning of a crime). And it would cost less. But it should have restrictions. It should be limited to a period of a handful of years, requiring renewal, it should *not* be a pathway to citizenship, it should not allow a person to live off the tax-payer, and it should coincide with mass arrest of all violent criminals among the illegal immigrant population. In short the system would favor people who want to come here and work, not violent criminals, not would-be welfare moms, but workers.

What incentive does this create for would-be illegal immigrants? Would they see that we would just roll over and they can break into the country anyway, and that we would eventually grant them amnesty? Perhaps. For this reason I think we need to make it easy as pie to get a work visa. Just pay a fee. For renewal, a fee. The penalty for not having a work visa though, should be immediate deportation followed by a three-year period during which that person cannot get a work visa to reenter the country. This reduces the incentive for people to bypass the legal immigration system, making the population of "illegal immigrants" much smaller and easier to contain and deport.

It's an issue of economic freedom. If I want to have the freedom to pay cheap imported labor to make my burgers for me, why shouldn't I have the right? Why should the government step in and take away that right from me? Why deny the American consumers the benefit of cheap labor?

The national security considerations, the only true challenge, IMO, to my amnesty position, are for another post entirely, and they merit discussion, and they would have to be factored into the guest worker program.

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