Why I changed my mind on low-skilled immigration

For most of my politically aware life I have held vaguely center right / libertarian views on immigration. I supported the free movement of labor across national borders in the same way I would free trade. I still think open immigration probably maximizes wealth globally; however, such a policy inadequately distributes that wealth.

For moral or practical reasons (I would argue both), a nation has a responsibility to guarantee all of its citizens a basic standard of living. This discussion also assumes that the American government should prioritize American well-being over general human prosperity (a topic for another time).

It is usually more desirable for individuals to receive a basic standard of living through work rather than welfare. Work provides a routine and place in society. It also offsets the cost to society to support these individuals. In oversimplified terms, I like to think of it as (Cost to Provide a Basic Standard of Living – Value of the Individual’s Labor = Net Cost to Society to Support). Finding productive outlets for as many people as possible can minimize this cost.

When discussing employment as a means to support individuals, private sector employment is preferable to public sector employment. This is because the value creation is validated through a profit-motivated party (the hiring business) and therefore the employment is unlikely to be a net negative to society (as some public sector jobs could be, such as excessive bureaucracy).

Note: Public sector employment can be more desirable for accomplishing other objectives, such as national defense, education, health, policing, etc.

Reducing low-skilled immigration should result in higher wages, which would effectively “redistribute” resources to people who may otherwise require welfare. These higher wages will likely also increase the prices of certain goods and services; however, these will generally be consumed by those with enough disposable income to dine out, have their homes cleaned, etc.

A substantial number of these jobs cannot be off-shored, including cleaning, landscaping, construction, retail, restaurants, etc. Most of this work will still need to be done, even at higher wages. Higher pay may drive long-term automation, but this is likely inevitable and it is more desirable for low-skilled Americans to benefit in the meantime.

Exceptions may be required for industries that cannot survive at higher wage levels, most notably agriculture. Temporary work visas present a potential solution, allowing migrant workers to supply cheap labor to industries that would otherwise be forced to shut down.

“Charitable” immigration policy (e.g. providing asylum for refugees) should be viewed separately from “economic” immigration policy, which should be primarily motivated by maximizing the wellbeing of American society.

Concern over immigrants “taking our jobs” is usually mocked, but wage pressure from an enormous external labor supply is a real concern, especially for those who are economically vulnerable.

Some of the counterarguments I would anticipate are:

“Don’t these jobs represent work that Americans just will not do?”

The vast majority of people will take almost any job if it pays enough. Many positions simply do not pay enough to attract American workers because low-skilled immigration provides a nearly unlimited source of labor willing to work at low wages. I am uncomfortable with the idea that working class Americans should face wage pressures so middle and upper class consumers can have cheaper home renovations.

Likewise, a smaller supply of workers will likely require employers to improve work conditions to support retention.

Why not just raise the minimum wage?

Raising the minimum wage without restricting the labor supply would raise prices while still requiring Americans to compete for the positions, driving wages down and not maximizing the distribution of income to Americans.

Will this policy harm certain industries (for example: construction)?

It almost certainly will, but it’s worth the cost for a more desirable distribution of income.

Why not provide adequate education so Americans don’t need to do low-skilled work?

I want to make clear that I think low-skilled labor is a perfectly fine way to earn a living, but I do think higher-skilled labor is preferable simply for the greater economic benefits it provides to the worker.

We should absolutely invest in education; however, I would be willing to guess a certain number of people in society will always be best suited for relatively low-skilled work. I could be wrong on this, but in the meantime we need to be thinking about the best policies for our current situation.

One thought on “Why I changed my mind on low-skilled immigration

  1. I’m slightly saddened by the idea that the objective should be domestic prosperity and damn everyone else, but setting that aside…

    “Reducing low-skilled immigration should result in higher wages” is an empirical question rather than a normative one for me. There are effects that work against this (particularly over longer time horizons) notably preventing business from accessing a resource could slow (global) economic growth and ultimately reduce wages. There is also a domestic effect of businesses moving abroad to tap into more attractive labour markets elsewhere if they can’t get what they need. Evidence from the UK looks like a wash long term (see below). That would suggest the “stealing our jobs” narrative is at best rather short sighted (which doesn’t prevent it from being politically expedient).

    On a more topical note, creating a hostile environment for low skill labour necessarily means hostility to high skilled migrants too (this is observable already, see e.g. H1b issues) , which will destroy US competitiveness if allowed to go too far.



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