Guest Workers and The Ultimate Liberal Aim

Thanks to Kerry, there has been a great deal of stimulating cross-blog discussion of the desirability of an expanded American guest worker program compared to other policies. As far as I can tell, a good number of smart, well-intentioned folks see a big guest worker program as a second-best substitute for an increase in permanent migration and the supply of citizenships. (For example, Tim Lee here.) I think this is mistaken. While I also would like to see the United States mint millions of new passports, I think this is an entirely separate issue from the right of individuals to cross borders and enter into productive agreements with other human beings. It may be the case that the current public understanding of migration confuses these logically separate issues. And it may therefore be the case that the status quo, on-the-ground politics of immigration requires some kind of strategic trade-off between a new guest worker program and an upsurge in permanent residents and citizens. I have my doubts, but I really don’t know. The point I want to get across is that if we currently do have to make such a choice politically, we’re probably thinking about this complex of issues sloppily, and ought to do better starting now.

I suspect that some of us are talking past one another because of differences in political aims. My long-term aim regarding migration is the best feasible approximation of a single global labor market–a world in which people are free to travel the world in search of the most valued use for their skills. That this idea should seem shocking to some (most?) of us reveals how deeply-seated are our essentially illiberal nationalistic impulses. But there is nothing new here. Mises had this all nailed down tight in his chapter on “Liberal Foreign Policy” in Liberalism, written eighty years ago. A politics aimed at world peace requires an integrated world of peaceful cooperation. Here is your bracing refresher statement of ideals:

The starting point of liberal thought is the recognition of the value and importance of human cooperation, and the whole policy and program of liberalism is designed to serve the purpose of maintaining the existing state of mutual cooperation among the members of the human race and of extending it still further. The ultimate ideal envisioned by liberalism is the perfect cooperation of all mankind, taking place peacefully and without friction. Liberal thinking always has the whole of humanity in view and not just parts. It does not stop at limited groups; it does not end at the border of the village, of the province, of the nation, or of the continent. Its thinking is cosmopolitan and ecumenical: it takes in all men and the whole world. Liberalism is, in this sense, humanism; and the liberal, a citizen of the world, a cosmopolite.

As I’ve argued before, I think this conception of cosmopolitan liberalism almost got lost in the Cold War, during which cosmopolitan, internationalist ideals were largely ceded to the communists while liberalism rode out the red tide by tying itself defensively to nationalist feelings in those nations with a more or less liberal identity. The Cold War has been over for almost twenty years now. It is time to get back to the project of securing world peace through extending the scope of mutual cooperation. It is time to get back to the cosmopolitan ideals of liberal humanism.

So that’s the backdrop. Against it, questions of the American interest are instrumental, not ultimate. “What’s in it for us?” is such a pressing question because Americans need to see how their interests are compatible with the aim of a free, just, and peaceful world. For a liberal, it is not surprising that they are.

The U.S. has a serious problem regulating movement over the southern border by Mexicans and Central Americans. The main source of the problem is high U.S. labor demand and wage rates. The policy most likely to solve this problem is not a militarized border, which, as Douglas Massey explains, is completely counterproductive.

The net effect of our harsh border policy has been to increase the rate of undocumented population growth in the U.S. By lowering the rate of return migration to Mexico while leaving the rate of in-migration largely unaffected, it has increased net migration from around 180,000 persons per year in the late 1970s and early 1980s to around 368,000 per year over the past decade.

The increase in border enforcement has actually reduced the probability of apprehending undocumented border crossers to a 40-year low by pushing the flows into remote territory where fewer officers are stationed. But it has also tripled the death rate.

It is logically contradictory, and impossible in practical terms, to create a single North American economy that integrates markets for goods, capital, raw materials, services, and information but somehow keeps labor markets separate.

Nor is liberalization of permanent residencies and citizenships the ticket. There are simply too many people who want to work in the U.S., and the political will to hand out that many Green Cards just isn’t there. Even a significant liberalization on the path-to-citizenship front isn’t going to do much to regulate the flow of labor across the southern border. This is a real issue we need to address. Moreover, a large number of the people now crossing the border illegally don’t especially want to become Americans and would like to go home after a while. A large guest-worker program aimed specifically at these workers really is the best bet.

So a guest-worker program would have a real short-term benefit to the U.S. in terms of increased border security, return migration, and labor market efficiency. The medium-term benefit of a large guest worker program aimed at our neighbors to the south is this: Once the program is established and has demonstrated its efficacy, it will be possible to make a persuasive case for further North American labor-market integration, pushing toward a common North American labor market. In the long term, large regional labor markets, such as the EU and a North American market (and a South American market, an African market, an Asian market, etc.) can begin to integrate, moving us toward the ultimate liberal aim of an open world of mutual cooperation.

Thinking of this issue primarily in terms of the distribution of legal permissions to stay for good is a recipe for confusion. We need to build the infrastructure of a well-regulated system in which people are free to come and go in a dynamic global economy where the demand for various forms of human capital comes and goes. Thinking about in terms of Green Cards and passports seems to me to take for granted that if people are going to cross a border to work, they are going to do it just once, and to stay.