“Trade is not the only mechanism that nanny state conservatives have used to depress the wages of the bulk of the population. Immigration has also been an important tool to depress the wages of a substantial segment of the workforce. The principle with immigration is exactly the same as with trade. It takes advantage of the billions of workers in developing countries who are willing to work at substantially lower wages than workers in the United States to drive down the wages in a wide range of occupations.The reason that professionals and middle class people – say, doctors or university lecturers – can generally stave off such competition is that they tend to have effective trade unions or lobbies that defend them (Baker 2006: 24), but our unskilled and low-skilled workers often cannot.
The conservative nanny state folklore on immigration is that immigrants take jobs that workers in the United States do not want, and they point to jobs like custodians, dishwashers, and fruit picking, all very low paying jobs. The problem with the folklore is that the reason that native born workers are unlikely to want these jobs is that they are low-paying, not because they are intrinsically such awful jobs. Native-born workers have been willing to take many unpleasant jobs when they were compensated with high wages. Meatpacking is an obvious example of an industry that did offer relatively high-paying jobs that were widely sought after by native-born workers, even though no one would be very happy to work in a slaughterhouse. This is less true today than in the past, because the meatpacking industry has taken advantage of the availability of immigrant workers to depress wages and working conditions in the industry. As a result, immigrant workers are now a very large share of the workforce in the meatpacking industry.
The same sort of situation holds in all of the jobs that native born workers supposedly do not want. Native-born workers will wash dishes, clean toilets, and pick tomatoes for $20 an hour. When the nanny state conservatives say that they can’t find native-born workers for these jobs, they mean that they can’t find native-born workers at the wages that they want to pay, just as most of us can't find native-born doctors or lawyers who are willing to work for $15 an hour. The difference is that the nanny state conservatives get to bring in immigrants at low wages to meet their needs, whereas the doctors and lawyers can count on the nanny state to protect them from competition with immigrant workers.” (Baker 2006: 23–24).
Even worse, increasingly not even higher-skilled US workers can totally avoid such competition because of notorious special pro-big business visa programs like, say, the H1-B program (Baker 2006: 25).
And also let me be clear: this has got nothing to do with people’s skin colour. This is about good economic theory and good economic policy. Also note well: we are talking here about unending *mass* immigration, not immigration per se. We are not talking about, say, limited immigration of skilled people in an economy at full employment and suffering genuine labour shortages, where the economic argument for controlled immigration of the necessary labour would have good arguments in its favour.
Quite simply: mass immigration is the last fraud of Neoliberalism. And it is the “last fraud” because many people on the left simply can’t see it for what it is: a devastating part of the neoliberal program that has been ongoing for the past 36 years or so.
The left is largely blind to how its economic, social, political, and cultural consequences are devastating, because so much of the left is in thrall to a misguided and extreme multiculturalism that has come right out of Postmodernism. It is so surprising that many more people on the left – particularly in the heterodox economics blogosphere – don’t see the truth here. Or perhaps they do but are too frightened to say it for fear of being slandered with nasty words.
And it is not as though there isn’t good heterodox literature on this and the benefits of labour market protectionism for us in the developed world: there is good analysis by Ha-Joon Chang in his book 23 Things they Don’t Tell you about Capitalism (Bloomsbury Press, London, 2011), p. 23ff.
This negative view of mass immigration on the left isn’t even new either: in the past the radical Marxist and socialist left in America was vehemently opposed to mass immigration because of its harmful effects on domestic workers. You can probably find precedents for this in the writings of Marx himself, and certainly in Chapter 20 of volume 1 of Capital Marx notes that foreigners can be exploited for very low wages that undermine wages for native workers (Marx 1990: 690). Moreover, we do not need Marxism to justify this view anyway, and Post Keynesianism and left non-Marxist heterodox economics generally can provide good arguments against open borders and mass immigration on economic grounds.
At any rate, the left should not stay silent about the obvious link between neoliberalism and mass immigration, because (1) the issue is obviously of concern to ordinary people and (2) if the left doesn’t get a grip on the issue the only people who will talk about it are the right.
In the context of, say, British politics, the idiosyncratic conservative Peter Hitchens often raises this issue, as in the video below, although he concentrates on cultural and social issues related to it.
That is why Hitchens – a former Marxist and clever speaker – uses the rhetoric of Marxism to attack the bourgeois, pro-business, pro-open borders elites of the neoliberal Tory and New Labour parties. From the surging support for UKIP in Britain and the results of other opinion polls against open borders, it appears opinions like this resonate with more and more people.
The left has a choice: are you going to leave the issue to Hitchens or Trump? And perhaps even people much worse than them?
Baker, Dean. 2006. The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, DC.
Chang, Ha-Joon. 2011. 23 Things they Don’t Tell you about Capitalism. Bloomsbury Press, London.
Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. Volume One (trans. Ben Fowkes). Penguin Books, London.