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Libertarian Kerry Howley and Matt Yglesias are having an interesting back-and-forth on her excellent article about guest workers, which ran in the latest issue of Reason. Kerry's article is a broad brief in favor of the programs, based on looking at how it works in Singapore. To which Matt responds:

I’d definitely recommend that you give Kerry Howley’s Reason article on guest workers in Singapore a read. It’s a very thorough and balanced discussion of the way it works. That said, given that the crux of the opposition to such programs for the United States is “it’s repugnant and un-American, violating everything this country stands for” to say in reply but look at how well it works in a small, regimented, highly inegalitarian Asian dictatorship doesn’t seem very persuasive.

The experience of a more similar society, Germany, is not something that many Americans look at and would desire to replicate. Meanwhile, I have no desire to see the United States become more like Singapore. We are, however, in the midst of a burgeoning libertarians against democracy moment (a return to classical liberalism’s traditional anti-democratic sentiments) of sorts, so maybe we’ll start seeing more and more aspects of Singapore and Hong Kong recommended to us as models.


Kerry replies:


No, we don’t want to be more like Singapore overall. We want to be more like Singapore in the ways that Singapore is more liberal than we are. I think we can reasonably expect a U.S. guest worker program to be more compassionate and less disturbingly efficient than a Singaporean one. If the system is bettering lives over there, it would surely do so in a country less excited about, say, executing people for marijuana possession.

I don't think we're particularly like Germany, which like most European countries, is still dominated by an ethnic view of what constitutes "German-ness". But I do think this rather short shrifts the question of how American society would have to change to accomodate large numbers of people who have no vested interest in our country.

I'm in favor of much more open immigration, but I'm not in favor of unlimited immigration, because I think that without limits, immigration could easily exceed our ability to assimilate immigrants. Cultures have some right to preserve themselves; America does not have a duty to suddenly double its population with people who don't speak English, have no experience with functioning liberal democracy, and low economic productivity--even if it would, as is undoubtedly true, make all those people better off.

Not that Kerry is advocating any such thing; I'm just illustrating that there are limits to our obligation to make poor people in other countries better off by allowing them to migrate here. I think that obligation is substantial. Almost no one reading this would be here if America hadn't thrown open her doors to their ancestors, and so we have something close to a sacred duty to extend that welcome to as many more people as possible. But we don't have an obligation to radically alter our society in order to make it more friendly to guest workers.

So how radically would we have to change in order to accomodate the transient population? Kerry's article offers a hint:

And yet Manalac is very much a guest in this country. He says he’ll remain for as long as they’ll have him, though he doesn’t presume to have any right to stay. If he were fired or became unable to work, he’d have to leave within seven days. He is subject to regular medical examinations to ensure that he is HIV-negative. He can’t bring his children here. He can’t bring his wife here. Were his marriage to fail, it would be illegal for him to marry a Singaporean. Were he female, a pregnancy would mean repatriation or abortion. The Singaporean government has made itself very clear: Foreign workers are here to build a nest egg, not to build a nest.

What will we do with pregnant guest workers? For three to six months, at least, they won't be working. They'll need health care; who will provide it? Will we force companies to provide their guest workers health care, which will make them uneconomical compared to other low-skilled labor, or will the taxpayer foot the bill? Do we ship them home? Do we rewrite our constitution to exclude their babies from citizenship?

We could simply discriminate against female guest workers, as many countries do; or we could allow employers to do so, as they do in most places where such things are allowed: firing the ones who get pregnant, or locking them in at night so that they can't get into trouble in the first place. It's not really surprising that the female guest workers she interviews for the articles are maids, closely supervised by the families they work for.

That's one troubling question. Here's another: do we let the guest workers date and marry American citizens, as they will? Because if we do, we'll find a lot of our guests have become permanent members of the household.

Then there's the question of social services; even if we force employers to cover health care costs, what do we do for guest workers who are between jobs? Send them back to Mexico? If we let women in, we will end up with a largish number of new citizens: are we obligated to educate them? Can they sign up for S-Chip?

But mostly, I worry about having a large number of people in the country who are, definitionally, not planning to stay here. There's something corrosive about transience: witness the way college students treat their neighborhoods. (And don't tell me they're young; they're prime guest-worker age.) Civic bonds can withstand culture clash, but I'm not sure they can withstand pockets of people who are just there for the job.

And though Kerry says that this is probably the only way we'll get to expand legal immigration, I'm not exactly sure what a guest worker program buys you--unless we really do exert Singapore-style controls to keep the workers herded in ghettos, unable to date or marry American citizens and watched like hawks by cops with a rather casual attitude about civil rights. The main objections of Americans to illegal immigration has nothing to do with the brown people staying too long. Rather, it is that the brown people introduce change to your community (all the signs are in Spanish!), commit crimes, use social services, live in slumlike conditions that reduce local property values, have babies that automatically (and at great taxpayer expense) become citizens, and refuse to assimilate. How will forcing them to leave after five years, while immediately replacing them with a new crop of non-English speaking, social service consuming, child-having extremely poor people living eight to a room actually relieve any of these tensions? Ultimately, I suspect that a guest-worker program would end up doing more harm than service to the cause of freer immigration.

Update Given that a couple of people I respect have misunderstood me, let me clarify: I'm not against immigration. I'm for expanding legal residency programs a lot. I don't particularly care about legal immigration. I am specifically against creating a guest worker program. It might, in the short run, seem like a cute way to do an end-run around anti-immigration sentiment. In the long run, it brings in workers who are less committed to the country and the community, and probably makes tensions between immigrants and natives worse, since as soon as they start to assimilate a little, we'll ship them home and import a new crop that don't speak English. Nor will the people who currently don't like immigration somehow fail to notice the ones who get married or pregnant and stay. But it is not the fact that guest workers will come here, get pregnant, and suddenly present us with new baby Americans that bothers me; it's what damage we might do to our own civic institutions in trying to keep this from happening.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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