Free Immigration, Enemy of Free Enterprise

By Garrett Hardin
Volume 15, Number 1 (Fall 2004)
Issue theme: "Who are we? - Samuel P. Huntington's book explores America's identity crisis"

Immigrants are welcomed by many different power groups by merchants, who see immigrants as consumers; by employers, who look for subservient labor; by ethnic units, who seek more political power; and by traditionalists, because 'we are a nation of immigrants.' (As are all nations.) I oppose all four groups. I argue that we should, as rapidly as possible, reduce net immigration into the United States (immigration minus emigration) to zero. This is not put forward as a bargaining position. I recognize that it cannot be achieved overnight. But I propose that the quality of our immigration program be measured by the rapidity with which zero net immigration is achieved. The world is moving ever more deeply into the realm of shortages. Every increase in population brings an increase in the per capita cost of reducing population. Congestion grows. Traffic gridlocks become the norm as more valuable time is lost to commuting. Costs increase, tempers are frayed. Perhaps the most effective political agents working to increase population through the importation of immigrants are employers. Tragically, many businessmen fail to realize that a free immigration policy undermines the economic system they praise. The ideal free enterprise system is a procedure in which work is matched to workers by open bidding. Business enterprisers announce what they are willing to pay, and workers either accept the bid or make a counteroffer. It is a good system. We should not undermine it. When practiced faithfully, it is a self-adjusting system. That does not mean that adjustments come without pain. An increase in the cost of labor must be paid for out of an increase in the price of the product. That may mean lower sales or lower profits. Or the enterpriser may find a new way to increase production without increasing the price. The life of free enterprisers is not a bed of roses, but that is why the monetary rewards are so high. We pay businessmen to solve problems, not to evade them. Subsidies are an evasion of the free enterprise system. So also is reaching outside the national community for cheaper, more subservient labor in the form of immigrants. Every evasion of a self-adjusting system stores up trouble for the future. If there were a shortage of labor, there might be an excuse for immigration. But there is not. Except in wartime, there has been no shortage of labor in America for more than a century. We are afflicted with an excess of labor; we call it 'unemployment.' During the past 15 years, the army of unemployed Americans has fluctuated between 4 and 10 million. That is the officially unemployed. The true number may be as much as 50 percent higher. There is no present reason to think that it will ever sink lower. There are plenty of people to fill all the employment slots. Of course, many of the unemployed cannot fill particular slots, but the employment game is a game of musical chairs. Those who are better prepared and already employed can move on to higher jobs, while their old positions are occupied by others whose skills are, perhaps, poorer to begin with. Given the apparently perpetual existence of a surplus of labor, how are we to interpret an outcry of 'labor shortage?' Only one way makes sense 'labor shortage' is a warning signal that someone is seeking a labor subsidy from outside the national system. How should rational men and women react to such warnings? It is dangerous to ignore warning signals. Remember the railroad wreck near Baltimore on January 4, 1987? Sixteen lives were lost, 170 people were injured, and property damages amounted to $15 million. Why did the accident occur? Because the warning signal, installed for safety's sake, annoyed the crew, and one of them taped it shut. That is no way to run a railroad. In our economic system, 'labor shortage' is the shriek of a warning whistle. What does it mean? If everybody were fully employed it might mean that we should import more workers. But not everybody is fully employed. The number of unemployed is in the millions. The warning whistle means something else. As concerns particular professions, a persistent shortage means that there is something wrong with the way our schools, and society at large, educate the young and reward those who work. We can understand the meaning of 'labor shortage' better if we examine one situation in detail. Let us look at the nursing profession. Every few years there is an outcry about a shortage of trained nurses. Yet at every moment there are thousands of trained nurses who have left the profession to take other jobs. Why did they switch? Because nursing is not attractive enough, relative to other work. The pay may be too low; the hours may be too long; the assignments may be too unpredictable; or there may be too little autonomy for a competent, self-respecting nurse. (Doctors and head nurses can be pretty overbearing.) The warning whistle 'shortage of nurses' tells us to address the issues of work and its rewards. Medical administrators ignore the warning as they try to import more subservient women from poor countries. A hospital administrator who calls for immigrant labor is trying to tape the warning whistle shut. He ignores the need to improve the working conditions of nurses and hence the quality of nursing. Patients suffer. America suffers. A similar analysis applies to every so-called 'labor shortage.' Periodic complaints of shortages of engineers, teachers, farm workers, and unskilled labor yield to this analysis. In every case, those who want to import immigrants want to tape a warning whistle shut. The whistle is attached to the American free enterprise system, to which most businessmen pay lip service, but which all too many try to escape when it is applied to their own affairs. The businessman who imports labor from less developed countries is plugging shut the warning whistle. Each immigrant who comes in becomes the instant heir of all the expensive infrastructure accumulated by generations of Americans. This structure includes public highways, the services of private enterprises, and the welfare functions of the state. In all fairness, the immigrant should 'buy into the firm.' He does not do it; nor does his employer buy in for him. Without paying a cent, the immigrant can instantly draw on the resources of public hospitals and schools which have been paid for over many years by tax-paying Americans. Moreover, the immigrant's demands are often increased by his family, generally large, which he imports or generates on the spot. It is true that immigrants also create jobs but not as many as the workers they displace. (If they created more, America could become rich instantly by importing all the rest of the world's people. But no apologist for immigration has the gall to suggest that.) Immigration makes the unemployment problem worse than it would otherwise be. Unemployment is worst among the young. As an incidental consequence of this fact, those who have never held a job are most easily recruited into the well-paying illegal drug trade. Should we blame the recruits? Or society, for tolerating immigration and other practices that increase the need for employment of some kind? Is immigration to blame for the evils of society? Not solely. Is overpopulation to blame? Again, not solely. Over population by itself (whatever that means) may not actually cause anything. But it exaggerates the evils caused by other forces. So long as we cannot reduce unemployment to zero, we should reduce immigration to zero. We must escape the mental habits of the past, adopted when times were different. We must build the world of the future on the free enterprise system, toward which even centrally directed economies like China and Russia are moving. The free enterprise system is a pretty good system. The world is crowded with many desperately poor countries looking for an outlet for their people. Free immigration can be the death of free enterprise. When that goes, not much will remain of other freedoms.

About the author

The late Garrett Hardin, Ph.D., was Professor Emeritus of Human Ecology in the University of California, Santa Barbara. This essay first appeared in Population and Environment, 14 197-200, Copyright 1992, Human Sciences Press. It is here reprinted from a collection of Dr. Hardin's essays, The Immigration Dilemma Avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons, published by the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, DC in 1995.