First Principles May 2006

The Benefits of Brutality

Why America's immigration outlook—current grumblings notwithstanding—remains so much healthier than Europe's

Looking ahead, Europe’s quandary is acute. Without doubt, Europe desperately needs immigrants and their children—immigrants who go to work, that is. Its population is growing far more slowly than America’s (even falling, in some countries), and is aging fast. A few decades from now, the costs of its generous state pensions will be insupportable unless these demographic trends change. Yet just as these problems are beginning to manifest, European opposition to immigrants, especially Muslims, is growing.

On the face of it, America’s welfare system is harsher and less hospitable than Europe’s, something that many liberals lament. But in this respect, at least, that appearance is misleading. The unintended consequences of Europe’s milder regime are not just a looming fiscal collapse but also, in the meantime, intensifying and plainly self-destructive anti-immigrant sentiment. America’s harsher insistence on work is not just economically advantageous (which is self-evident) but socially beneficial as well (which some may find surprising). Jobs alone are not enough to ensure successful assimilation of immigrants, but jobs are a necessary condition. By insisting that immigrants work, the host country attacks the incumbents’ intellectual and emotional resistance to immigration. The work requirement increases the dispersed economic benefits; it reduces or eliminates the net fiscal burden; and it lowers cultural barriers. As a result, tempers cool. In these key respects, America’s more brutal model is kinder—in addition to being more sustainable.

That’s not to say the American model isn’t under stress. One thing the current version of that model cannot do is answer concerns about competition for low-wage jobs and widening inequality of incomes. Indeed, insisting that low-skilled immigrants work, and affording them the opportunity to do so, only makes that problem worse. And the vast majority of immigrants to the U.S. today are low-skilled.

There is, however, a partial, and theoretically simple, remedy: Congress and the administration should heed the demands of many American businesses and lift restrictions on the immigration of highly skilled workers. For the country at large, this would yield nothing but benefits. America is short of many kinds of skilled workers, which is why wages for such people are rising faster than average wages. Increasing the supply from abroad would slow, and conceivably even reverse, the trend of worsening inequality. Highly skilled workers, of course, pay more in taxes than they consume in public services: far from adding to the fiscal burden, they ease it, and everybody else benefits. And since they are well educated and most likely fluent in English, they assimilate readily. (Speaking personally, this writer would also be grateful if getting his visa renewed could be a bit less of an ordeal next time.)

It is the American way—so what is the problem? The only drawback to this kind of liberalization, from a global point of view, is that it seems perverse to draw skilled workers from backward countries such as my native United Kingdom, where they are so badly needed, and bring them to the United States, which already has so many. And that argument probably applies with even greater force to educated immigrants from, say, Mexico or Nigeria. One answer to this concern is that immigrants send money back home. (Yes, in case you are wondering.) According to most studies, countries such as Mexico and India, which receive huge flows of remittances, are probably net fiscal beneficiaries from outward migration. That is fine, but there is a much better answer: namely, that no country has the right to keep its citizens locked in, or should expect America’s help in doing that—not even if it would add to the gross domestic product. If America’s interests are served by letting many more highly skilled immigrants come to this country, and if those immigrants calculate that migrating is in their interests as well, that is all you need to know.

The muddled politics of immigration make that reform, or any other, difficult, which is a pity. But even as the specific pattern of American immigration continues to exacerbate inequality, the tangle remains mostly a good thing. Europe’s greater clarity on the issue springs from a much bigger failure, and nurtures a grave and worsening predicament. Sadly, its unmuddled politicians are staring intently away from the solution.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic.

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