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Wednesday, July 03, 2013  

How Not to Make a Liberal Argument

In the New Republic, T.A. Frank makes a lengthy argument for liberals opposing the Senate's immigration bill. It will be familiar to those who have followed the debate over the years: competition from current and future illegal immigrants will hurt wages, diminish the power of unionized workers, and stress the safety net on which low-wage workers rely.

Now I don't know the issue well enough to be anything but agnostic on the probability of these effects. I do know that many scholars find positive net affects to native-born workers in low-wage jobs (though they often find negative affects to less-recent immigrants), but others do not. I'll have to leave that question to the experts. But I do want to point out something Frank repeatedly does in this article:

The country I want for myself and future Americans is one that’s prosperous, cohesive, harmonious, wealthy in land and resources per capita, nurturing of its skilled citizens, and, most important, protective of its unskilled citizens, who deserve as much any other Americans to live in dignity.
But if that was how I felt about protecting Hong Kong’s working class, why shouldn’t I feel that way about America’s?
For instance, buried on page 20 in Appendix Two” of this pro-legalization report touted by the Center For American Progress—trumpeted in a press release with the headline “How Immigration Reform Would Help the Economy”—is an estimate that if half of the current unauthorized labor force were deported the wage of a low-skill U.S. worker would rise by $399 a year. By contrast, legalization would raise that worker’s wage by less than half that much—and that’s assuming no further illegal immigration. (emphasis added)

The same phrasing recurs another several times in the article. And granting for the sake of the argument that it's all true, it's a curious kind of liberalism that seeks to bolster the wages of low-skill workers in one country by deporting competing low-wage workers from a much poorer one. In other words, the argument throughout, from beginning to end, only makes sense if the only group of low-wage workers whose fate is of moral concern is the one that happens to have been born in this country. If you were born in the Dominican Republic or the Philippines or Mexico, your much more severe poverty is not a problem for us to solve or even to be concerned with.

Now that is a position one could take. But it is not, by any definition I acknowledge, a liberal position. It is a nationalist position. T.A. Frank and anyone else is welcome to take the view that American lives and American welfare are just categorically more important than the lives and welfare of non-Americans, but they ought to be more clear about it. We already have an amply-represented nationalist tendency in our politics. We don't need to re-label it as "liberalism." 

Now nation-states are what they are and public policy is what it is. There are unavoidable practical and moral limits on implementing the conviction that the value of human life is independent of one's place of birth. But letting people come here to exchange their labor for money and their money for goods and services and to do it all in a place where the quality of governance is higher, schools are better, and infrastructure is more productive is one of the least difficult and least costly ways to alleviate poverty for non-Americans. It's more effective than foreign aid, more effective than trying to badger developing countries into cracking down on corruption, more effective than invading a country and doing some nation-building. As a bonus, it dramatically enriches the existing American economy (in aggregate--that no one denies) in a way that allows even the worst possible (though hardly certain) outcomes for the native working class to be alleviated through fiscal transfers. Frank points out that the safety net is a tough sell when you have lots of immigrants about, but a politics based on (largely ethnic) nationalism is not exactly serving the safety net well now, and it's impossible to imagine a nationalist victory on immigration reform that is paired with a more-generous development of the safety net or stronger labor laws.

Lest anyone think of this view as a kind of new-fangled cosmopolitan version of liberalism, I would maintain that it comes from the oldest source: "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God" (Leviticus 19:34). As Marilynne Robinson (among others) has persuasively argued, this is where American liberalism--not its stingier European homonym--really began: in the Old Testament's commands to deal generously with immigrants, widows, the landless, freed slaves, and other people who could plausibly be treated, and so often have been, as competitors for scarce national resources. 

So by all means, work and argue and advocate for the interests of the native-born working class. But if your case for doing so requires ignoring entirely the moral claims of poor people in other countries, please don't call it liberalism. 

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:13 PM
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