Thursday, December 30, 2010

Liberalism and Illegal Immigration

We all know that, generally speaking, Democratic politicians are likely to be much more sympathetic to the interests of illegal immigrants than Republican politicians. That’s readily explicable in terms of electoral dynamics—the Latino voters to whom the interests of illegal immigrants matter most are an integral part of the Democratic base. It’s smart politics for Democrats to give illegals a relatively easy pathway to citizenship because it pleases people who already vote for them and promises to grow the future population of likely Democratic voters.

Mickey Kaus argues, however, that there’s a crucial respect in which Democrats' relative tolerance of illegal immigration belies their egalitarian professions. He thinks liberals who really care about equality should be a lot more attentive to the impact of illegal immigration on the well-being of working-class legal residents whose wages are driven lower as a result of labor-market competition from illegals:
“If you're worried about incomes at the bottom, though, one solution leaps out at you. It's a solution that worked, at least in the late 1990s under Bill Clinton, when wages at the low end of the income ladder rose fairly dramatically. The solution is tight labor markets. Get employers bidding for scarce workers and you'll see incomes rise across the board without the need for government aid programs or tax redistribution. A major enemy of tight labor markets at the bottom is also fairly clear: unchecked immigration by undocumented low-skilled workers. It's hard for a day laborer to command $18 an hour in the market if there are illegals hanging out on the corner willing to work for $7. Even experts who claim illlegal immigration is good for Americans overall admit that it's not good for Americans at the bottom. In other words, it's not good for income equality.

“Odd, then that Obama, in his "war on inequality," hasn't made a big effort to prevent illegal immigration--or at least to prevent illegal immigration from returning with renewed force should the economy recover.”
Will Wilkinson disagrees. He doesn’t deny that the wages of working-class legal residents are lower than they’d be without illegal immigration. But he thinks that doesn’t count for much on the moral ledger if we assign equal weight to the interests of legal and illegal residents. And that, he insists, is exactly what someone who cares about equality should do:
“A move to United States is an upwardly mobile move for almost all low-skilled immigrant workers, and it tends to reduce inequality on the whole. As a matter of description, Mr Kaus' conclusion follows only if we grant him the premise that the trend in inequality is best measured by looking at the set of people inside a country's borders at one point in time and then comparing it to the set of people inside the country's borders at a later point in time. I propose we reject this premise. It makes more sense to begin with the set of people now inside a country's borders and then follow the same people back in time. As we rewind the tape, some of those people will end up outside the country's borders because they migrated during the period under consideration. As economists Lant Pritchett and Michael Clemens convincingly argue, if we seek to measure how people fare, as opposed to how fenced-in national populations fare, the correct measure is what they call "income per natural". On an income-per-natural basis, almost nothing reduces inequality more dramatically than the migration of low-skilled workers from a poorer country to a richer country.

“The only reason to make the within-borders population of a nation-state our analytical touchstone is a prior commitment to the idea that the nation-state is the correct unit of normative evaluation.”
I don’t have a quarrel with Wilkinson’s moral arithmetic. It’s plausible that illegal residents from poorer countries have gotten more out of coming and staying here than legal residents have lost. So if we assign equal moral weight to the well-being of illegal and legal residents, illegal immigration promotes not only aggregate well-being but equality in its distribution.

But is this a reasonable method of egalitarian moral bookkeeping? It’s understandable that Wilkinson thinks it is. On the face things, an egalitarian should have equal moral regard for everyone, and should therefore assign equal weight to everyone’s interest when fashioning public policy. And that implies that every resident, legal or illegal, is entitled to have his interests weigh equally in public decision-making.  From this perspective, Kaus’s moral nationalism looks like a form of illiberal special pleading.

Yet, however compelling it may be in other respects, Wilkinson’s way of looking at things is at war with most people’s idea of “American citizenship.” A good American citizen manifests her civic virtue not only by recognizing the authority of legitimately enacted public decisions, but by supporting public decisions that serve a responsible idea of the “common good.” But whose good counts as an element of the common good?

Surely not everyone’s. No one would take a foreign policy proposal seriously, for example, that couldn’t be justified in terms of some plausible account of the “national interest.” But that’s just our way of acknowledging that we think that it’s civically irresponsible not to weigh the interests of Americans more heavily than the interests of non-Americans in our foreign policy-making.  And while the interests of every stakeholder in our public decisions properly carries some weight in our public deliberations, non-American stakeholders' interests generally carry a lot less weight than the interests of American stakeholders, even when the non-American stakeholders have a lot more riding on our public decisions than Americans.  Imagine how you'd react to someone who justified the Iraq war not by saying that it had made Americans safer, but solely on the ground that the good done for Iraqis outweighed the costs imposed on American military personnel.

Partiality toward fellow citizens, not only with respect to whose preferences count in our public decision-making but with respect to whose good should be counted as part of the common good, seems to be an integral part of our ordinary notion of "good citizenship."    Why shouldn't that hold for public decisions about immigration?


DannyP said...

Why does Wilkinson stop by considering only the well-being of illegal immigrants who are already here? Why not count all the well-being of all immigrants who would come here illegally in future if the border is secured? No liberal state can sustain a social safety net if it isn't willing to limit the class of eligible beneficiaries.

Lone Wolf said...

Kaus has a priceless response to Wilkinson that touches on some of the same themes.

Anon. said...

The illegals already here aren't exactly aliens. They pay taxes, serve in the military and have reasonably relied on the fact that we've been happy to have them doing our unskilled labor for years. I'm not saying illegals are entitled to exactly as much consideration as legal residents, but they entitled to a lot more consideration than non-residents. The Dream Act seems to me to be a reasonable way to recognize the special status of illegals who were brought here before the age of consent.

Ralph said...

I'm with anon.