An Area of Disagreement

Ray Keating Those of us who call ourselves conservatives obviously agree on a wide range of political, economic, cultural and philosophical issues. If we didn’t, conservatism would be meaningless. However, this doesn’t mean we agree on everything.

One area of disagreement is immigration.

I’m a pro-immigration conservative, and am regularly taken off guard when people find my favorable views of immigration to be unusual. Perhaps such reactions indicate that opposition to immigration has mushroomed within the conservative community of late.

Consider a recent column by Rich Lowry – “Let Them Eat Diversity” from September 2. He is the editor of National Review, the magazine started by William F. Buckley, Jr. that so many conservatives, including myself, came of age reading. In the column, Lowry put forth some rather novel – at least for a conservative – arguments to support his call to roll back U.S. immigration levels.

For example, he opened: “It is odd that liberals would fervently support a government program to suppress the wages of low-income Americans, especially minorities. But they do. The program is called high-level immigration.” He then went on to declare “high-level immigration” to be “one of the great corporate welfare programs of all time” – “a kind of rolling, reverse minimum wage law.”

Later, Lowry writes that the U.S. needs “to scale back legal immigration and control the nation’s borders, so low-income workers don’t have to compete against new immigrants, especially people who have no right to be here.” He warns that “societies have always sought to exploit cheap labor.” In the end, he tells middle-class families: “Mow your own damn lawns.” To employers: “Stop cheating your fellow citizens.”

Wow! Where to begin?

First, it should be noted that the supposedly “high-level immigration” in recent years actually falls well within the historical norm for the U.S., whether measured as annual immigrants as a share of the U.S. population or as foreign born population relative to total population.

How about the idea that immigration is a government program that suppresses wages and somehow rates as corporate welfare? By the same reasoning, couldn’t it be argued that lower levels of immigration are a government welfare program for certain workers and labor unions that in turn raise costs for businesses and consumers?

As a conservative and an economist, I learned long ago that markets work best when freedom prevails, and that most certainly includes freedom of movement for people. Does immigration restrain wage growth in certain areas? Perhaps to some degree, but so what? People come to this country for a variety of reasons, including to fill the demand for workers. They also often come to be entrepreneurs. Should business owners deride immigration due to increased competition from immigrants with new business ideas?

Again, as a conservative and an economist, I learned that we live in a dynamic economy, whereby if an individual works hard, improves his skills, boosts his productivity, or comes up with a great idea or innovation, he can climb the economic ladder of success. I also grasp that an increase in the size of the labor force translates into more producers and more consumers, which is positive for economic growth. And guess what, a rising tide does lift all boats.

In fact, most economists will tell you that immigration is an economic plus. In 1995, the Cato Institute, the National Immigration Forum, the Small Business Survival Committee and 21 other organizations co-sponsored a study by the late Julian Simon, which assessed the economic and demographic effects of immigration. Simon found that immigrants do not increase the rate of unemployment among native Americans; that total per capita government spending on immigrants is much lower than on natives; that education levels of immigrants have been rising from decade to decade; and that natural resources and the environment are not at risk from immigration. In addition, in an earlier book, The Economic Consequences of Immigration, Simon concluded: "Overall, and most important, immigrants clearly have a higher propensity for self-employment than do the native-born."

Subsequent studies have noted the positive economic impact of immigration. In a new report for the Immigration Policy Center titled “The Global Battle for Talent and People,” Stuart Anderson summed matters up this way: “Current concerns about the U.S. economy should not distract from an understanding that in the long term America’s economic success requires the nation to attract 1) skilled professionals from across the globe to increase the competitiveness of American companies and 2) workers at the lower end of the skill spectrum to fuel the growth of the U.S. labor force, filling jobs created by the aging of the population.”

As for supposedly exploiting labor, Lowry cites ancient Greece and slavery in the South as examples, but qualifies matters by adding, “Our reliance on immigrant labor is nowhere near as odious as those prior systems, but it is morally corrupting.” Hmmm, the idea of exploitation of labor in a free society seems rather Marxist to me, not conservative. Last time I checked, conservatives did not buy into the exploitation of individuals when they can exercise free will.

Finally, we have the amusing advice to suburbanites to “Mow your own damn lawns.” But what about division of labor? Isn’t everyone better off when we each focus on our comparative advantages? Why shouldn’t someone investing her time in a new business, writing a newspaper column or taking classes to improve her skills, hire someone else to mow her lawn if it makes economic sense?

It seems to me that the true conservative position on immigration would be to combine tightening up our borders for national security purposes, with an expansion of legal immigration to benefit the economy. As a conservative, I like people, and the more the merrier. That’s why I’m pro-life, pro-sprawl, pro-immigration and pro-economic growth.

In a free market economy, a larger population, whether due to domestic births and/or immigration, does not mean we have to cut the economic pie into smaller slices. Instead, it means that the pie gets bigger for everyone.

Raymond J. Keating is chief economist for the Small Business Survival Committee.

Category: Immigration
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