Guests in the Machine

If you have yet to read Kerry’s Reason cover on guest-worker programs, you’re falling behind. It is simply the best thing anyone has lately done on guest-worker programs, beautifully written and brilliantly reasoned. This part is phenomenal:

As Americans struggle with the implications of immigrants who come to live but not to stay, their single greatest objection to a guest worker plan may have nothing to do with migrant well-being. The gains for immigrants are demonstrably too big and the need too great to lend credibility to those who cast all guest workers as victims. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, migrants send $62.3 billion in remittances to Latin American and the Caribbean last year, keeping 8 to 10 million families above the poverty line. The unexplored opportunities for mutually advantageous cooperation are massive and undeniable. But it seems dirty. “It simply feels exploitative and un-American to allow migrants in without giving them a shot at becoming citizens,” writes Jacob Weisberg in Slate.

The economist Lawrence Summers, a former president of Harvard, has expressed this objection in somewhat loftier terms. In a critique of Harvard’s Pritchett, Summers explains: “Lant’s kind of compassionate libertarianism carries the risk of a morally problematic coarsening that we resist in many other ways.” The problem with guest worker programs, in other words, has nothing to do with the good of guest workers, and everything to do with the moral harm that proximate poverty might cause to their hosts. Allowing workers entry to the United States might be mutually beneficial for employer and employee, all the while producing corrosive cultural externalities. Summers seems to think that guest workers will inure Americans to a system of class stratification and undermine a shared, naive sense of global solidarity.

The moral calculus, then, is to be weighed between the welfare of potential workers and the preservation of an idealized American narrative. Does it reflect better on the American character to lock poor people out than to permit them entry on limited terms? Guest worker programs do clash with deeply held mythologies about our relationship to the global poor. We live in a state of relative political equality nested awkwardly within a deeply unequal world, and it can seem better, kinder, to keep the inequality outside, walling it off and keeping our hands clean. Perhaps American egalitarianism, like a dress too precious to be worn, is a value too dear to expose to the real world. As the essayist Richard Rodriguez, himself the son of Mexican immigrants, has written, “Americans prefer unknowing.”

Do you prefer unknowing? Read it.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center