The Benefits of Brutality

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

Concern over immigration comes and goes in this nation of immigrants. Currently, it is on the rise. That is surprising, and a little worrying, because alarm over the issue is normally linked to the business cycle. The economy right now is pretty strong, so one wonders where attitudes about immigration will go when that next changes, and unemployment starts increasing. There is good news, though. We know what deep hostility to immigration looks like—hostility of the sort that can lead to the crippling of economies and the slow decline of nations. It looks like Europe. American attitudes have an awfully long way to go before they reach that point, and for many reasons—some obvious, some less so—they seem unlikely to get there.

Even when it peaks, resentment of immigrants is milder here, and more guardedly expressed. A subtler but equally important difference: in America, immigration policy divides and confuses the political parties, separating liberals from liberals, and conservatives from conservatives; in Europe, by contrast, it tends to unite the political tribes behind hardened positions. Both of these differences make America a healthier place—though the underlying reasons for America’s better health might be difficult for some to accept.

In all rich countries, immigration arouses three main complaints. First, immigrants lower the wages of competing domestic workers. The incumbents are likely to object to this, especially if their wages are already under pressure for other reasons (as they are everywhere, because of trade and, above all, labor-saving technology). Second, immigration can impose a fiscal burden—the costs of health care and welfare payments for immigrants, schooling for their children, and so on. So taxpayers are likely to complain too, if this burden seems large. Third, concentrated immigration can arouse fears that the local culture will be overwhelmed. Natives press this last complaint far more vigorously, of course, if they fear (as many Europeans now do) that immigrant communities may actually harbor enemies of the host country.

On the other side, immigration finds two main sources of support. First, if the conditions are right, broad economic benefits flow in alongside the immigrants (at the low-skill end, that means cheaper food, basic manufactured goods, and services; at the high-skill end, lower prices and faster innovation as well). Second, most people are instinctively compassionate toward people willing to uproot themselves in order to improve their prospects and those of their families. Both of these ideas carry much greater force in America than in Europe. Whether one is talking about menial jobs that Americans won’t do, or the proliferating technical and scientific jobs that Americans alone can’t fill, the economic case for immigration is well understood. As for the compassionate instinct to identify with immigrants, that is woven into the country’s history as a central part of the collective memory.

Even so, on a narrow calculation of political interests, the contending American ideologies are pulled both ways. Conservatives are attentive to immigration’s broader economic benefits—partly, one imagines, because these are disproportionately captured by shareholders, entrepreneurs, and high-wage workers (by conservative voters, in other words). On the other hand, they are also aware of immigration’s potential fiscal costs—which are disproportionately borne by the more prosperous taxpayers.

Liberals are no less conflicted. If they are more receptive than conservatives to arguments rooted in compassion for the masses huddled outside America’s borders, they are also more disturbed by immigration’s effects on the wages of blue-collar Americans. As for cultural anxiety, and outright prejudice for that matter, well, those doubtless influence both Right and Left. All in all, both political parties are at war with themselves over immigration, and that tension tends to blunt the most hostile feelings within each.

Compare this with Europe, where the economic and social contexts are both very different. Europe’s economies struggle much more than America’s to find work for low-skilled immigrants. High mandatory minimum wages, far-reaching “employment-protection” laws (a misnomer, since they discourage hiring), and generous welfare systems result in high unemployment among immigrants. The broader economic benefits of immigration are therefore less apparent; the bad fiscal consequences are by the same token more apparent; and the difficulty of assimilating immigrants and their children into mainstream society is far greater than it otherwise would be. All of this stands in contrast to the United States.

In the aggregate, these differences strengthen European opposition to immigration. Just as important, they allow that opposition to be more effectively expressed. Why? Because the European Right is much less divided on the subject than its American counterpart. Fewer economic benefits, a bigger fiscal burden, and larger anxieties about immigrants’ ability to assimilate all push to align the Right behind tighter restrictions on immigration. And this was true even before fundamentalist Islam engaged voters’ attention.

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.