Social Equality–One Country at a Time

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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“People born in Mexico are people too!” That was Matt Yglesias’ answer to my argument that “uncontrolled unskilled immigration can prevent Americans who do basic work from earning the minimum necessary for equal dignity.” Yglesias notes that even uncontrolled immigration helps Mexicans, who can’t be considered less deserving than Americans. This is a not-uncommon counter to anyone who makes the leftish wage-boosting argument for immigration control: why should our nation-state and its citizens be the “correct unit of normative evaluation“?  What are you, some kind of selfish chauvinist?

I have a couple of responses:

a) People born in Mexico who have come here illegally are people too. So are people born in Mexico who’ve stayed in Mexico and haven’t come here illegally. The logical extension of Yglesias’s nobly global moralism is that both groups should be allowed to come here, if they want–as well as all the people in Bangladesh who want to come, and India, and China, and Malaysia, and Kenya, etc.. Not 11 million new immigrants “living in the shadows,” but 111 million new immigrants or maybe 1 billion new immigrants.  Open borders, in other words.  Yglesias admits this is the logical extension of his position: “I’m for mostly open borders, yes.” Half the supporters of “comprehensive immigration reform” are also mostly-open-borders types–they don’t really think sanctioning employers who hire undocumented workers or trying to stop anyone who isn’t a felon from coming here is feasible or desirable. But they know that isn’t a popular view, so the pretend to favor amnesty-plus-enforcement–at least until an amnesty takes effect, in which case they rely on ACLU-style lawsuits to knock out the enforcement (as happened after the last big immigration reform, in 1986). Yglesias at least is honest enough to admit what he thinks.

b) I leave it to you to imagine the real-world consequences of Yglesias’ position. (Hint: Blade Runner set in Brazil!) But what about my position?  I would give Americans priority in the competition for low wage jobs.  I worry more about whether they can make $12 an hour than I do whether Mexicans who may have made only $2 an hour are able to come here and make $8 an hour. “We take care of our own”–even though the jump from $2 to $8 might be a huge income boost for the immigrants, who are indeed “people too.”

Yglesias thinks this common humanity is a “profound problem” for border restrictionists. It might be if all we cared about was income and its distribution–if we were economistic “money liberals” like (I suspect) Yglesias, or Timothy Noah, or the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. If you’re the kind of liberal who cares about social equality, not money equality, it’s not such a profound problem. Social egalitarians want everyone to consider everyone else equal, and worthy of respect, within the societies in which they live. ** For Americans, that’s America. For Mexicans, it’s Mexico. It’s not worth it if some hard-working Mexicans get some more money–with indeterminate consequences for social equality in Mexico**– if it means some hard-working Americans are denied a chance at social equality.

The social-egalitarian project, in this sense, is a lot more feasible than the money-egalitarian project. Social egalitarians want everyone to have respect, something that can be achieved one country at a time, in countries of vastly varying affluence. With a sufficiently strong democratic culture, Americans can achieve it at an average income of $50,000. Other nations might achieve it at far lower levels of material well-being.  It’s not the money that counts.

For Money Liberals, it is the money that counts–which, once you recognize that people in other countries “are people too,” makes the Money Liberal project even more impossible than it already is, because now Money Liberals have to equalize incomes, not just in the U.S., but across the U.S. and Latin America–indeed, across the entire planet. That will take more than a progressive U.S. tax code! It’s not an agenda for Obama. It’s an Isaac Asimov trilogy.

P.S.: Bob Wright advances a more sophisticated version of this argument here. His point is that, to the extent Mexicans measure their dignity against other Mexicans, and not against the rich in other countries whom they never see, it makes sense to use the nation-state as the relevant unit of measurement.


** – “Equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

Mickey Kaus