Krugman on Immigration and Inequality

Because I want to be certain not to argue against a strawman in my inequality paper, I’m arguing against Paul Krugman, for the most part. So I’ve been reading The Conscience of a Liberal for the third time. This is not pleasant work. Reading a John Bates Clark Medal winner shouldn’t feel this much like reading Ann Coulter. But it does. Liberal Fascism is a more intellectually evenhanded book, which says more about Krugman than it does about Liberal Fascism, I’m afraid.

But I digress before I even start. When Krugman talks about immigration, he has two points to make. One is that Republicans can’t win by being racists forever, because that’s sure to backfire once the Latin American population becomes large enough. The other point is that lots of low-skilled immigration makes it hard to politically mobilize the working class, since so few immigrants can vote. In Krugman’s view, if the working class contains many members without the franchise, it is itself disenfranchised. So it is that Krugman pretty nearly celebrates one of the most shameful chapters in 20th century American politics: the progressive (read: “racist”) imposition of strict immigration controls to keep shifty Asians and dirty Italian anarchists off our shores.

Krugman says that “a more fully enfranchised population” was an “unintended consequence” of the Immigration Act, but the effect that Krugman celebrates was not at all unintended by Samuel Gompers and the AFL, perhaps the most powerful driving force behind the law. And it is an effect Krugman thinks we should consider intending: “The disenfranchisement effect is, however, something liberals need to think hard about when confronting questions about immigration reform,” he delicately puts it.

What Krugman never says about immigration is that it is the most powerful engine of economic mobility and equalization there is. This make it obvious that Paul Krugman is not especially concerned with poor people or with economic equality. He is evidently not even especially concerned with poor people in the United States if they can’t vote. He seems to think it is at least worth considering keeping some of those people out of the country — keeping them poorer — if that would help achieve the redistributive politics he prizes. What kind of egalitarian is that?

Imagine a choice between two policies. Policy A would leave the level of redistribution just as it is, but would allow a much larger volume of immigration. Policy B would leave immigration as it is, but would increase the level of redistribution from rich to poor citizens. Which policy should a humanitarian favor? There can be no doubt: policy A. Which policy should an egalitarian favor? Well, Policy A will increase nation-level inequality by increasing the proportion of the population near the bottom of the income distribution. But why is this of any moral significance? If we take the set of people in the U.S. at time 2, and follow them all back in time to t1, when everyone is in whatever country he or she was in then, and see whether inequality has increased or decreased among this group of people, we will see that it has decreased a great deal, and that almost all of this decrease will have come from the poor becoming richer in real terms, and not from the rich losing income to taxes. If it were necessary to limit redistribution in order to make a greater volume of immigration politically feasible, then egalitarians and humanitarians ought to be for it.

Paul Krugman wouldn’t be for it, which is not surprising, since he appears to be neither a thoroughgoing egalitarian nor a thoroughgoing humanitarian. He is a nationalist social democrat, largely indifferent to larger concerns about equality and welfare. At this late globalizing date, “20th century Western European nationalist social democracy in yet another country!” strikes me as both a useless and unmoving conception of America’s ideal future.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center