Calls are rising to send American troops into the cities, towns and villages of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. Perhaps not far in the future, Russia and Ukraine will collapse, leading to calls for American troops to rush in and save the day. But is it possible that there is a better way to save the world?
There is a better idea, and it is simple and inexpensive: emigration and immigration. Or, to give it a more Biblical ring: “Let those people go! And let those people come!”
In the nineteenth century, oppressed and starving people were let go — and they came to America. Immigration powered the American economy, making it the fastest growing in the world. And emigration from heavily taxed and regulated old-world countries allowed their stagnant economies to better serve the remaining population.
Open-immigration policies that for over a century benefited the world and benefited America are today ignored or dismissed as unworkable. The only policy debates the public hears are those over whether immigration policy should be slightly more restrictive or slightly less restrictive. Or the public hears breathless debates over whether impoverished immigrants fled their repressive countries for “economic” or “political” reasons.
People see immigration as causing disarray and discomfort — they expect overloaded welfare agencies and jammed public schools. But such costs can be avoided or paid for by the immigrants themselves. The problem of poor immigrants jumping into welfare lines is better solved by eliminating welfare rather than stopping immigrants. Alternatively, a condition of immigration could be the following: “As a resident alien (as compared to an American citizen), you shall not be entitled to receive welfare.” The same could be said with respect to public schools (which would be a benefit to the immigrant as well as society, since the immigrant’s children would then have a better chance to receive a better education).
What about immigrants who might need an initial financial boost? As study after study has shown, philanthropy works best when it is voluntary — either from individuals or from organizations. Governmental assembly-line welfare programs tend to demean and dehumanize recipients. The small percentage of new immigrants who turn to welfare could easily be directed to privately funded support organizations within their community or to cultural and church organizations run by people from the immigrants’ homelands.
Poor People in a Rich Land
In any case, few new immigrants are likely to demand welfare support. Poor people newly arrived in wealthy countries tend to work hard. What they lack in job skills, they make up in diligence. America looks different to them than it does to the average American, rich or poor. Imagine moving to another country where you were offered $100 an hour to sweep floors. And once you mastered their weird foreign language and learned some new skills, you believed you could make $500 to $1,000 an hour. Chances are you would work very hard. Well, that is what America looks like to immigrants from Latin America, formerly communist Europe, Asia and Africa. And that is why many, many people in these countries, especially young people, are eager to come to America. Wages here, even for the worst jobs, often pay ten to twenty times what jobs pay in poor countries (though expenses, of course, are much higher here as well).
For all the high-sounding talk Americans offer about saving the world, what our government ends up doing is sending diplomats, tax dollars and troops overseas. Much of the world, however, does not want to be saved this way. And foreign-aid experts and diplomats usually just pump more money down the ratholes of already repressive governments. The people of these countries would prefer to save themselves and their families by working in America. After five or ten years here, many will return to their homelands with their savings and job skills.
The best answer to the problems of Somalia and other third-world counties is not to send heavily armed United States troops to save starving children and their parents. Instead, the best solution is to drop our immigration barriers. This would enable thousands of destitute people to nourish their bodies and spirits through labor and life in America. The principle is the same whether the suffering is in Somalia, Bosnia, Croatia, Russia, Ukraine and every other country where political forces continue to limit the freedom and regulate the lives of the citizenry.
For some hundred and fifty years, the United States was the major safety valve of the world. Our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents came to America to escape the stagnation, wars and famines that were so common under European and Asian despots.
The steady flow of impoverished immigrants to America turned into a flood in the middle and late 1800s. My great-grandfather left Germany in the 1860s, along with over 800,000 other Germans. New rail and shipping lines had lowered transportation costs significantly. And German farmers were having trouble competing with less expensive agricultural goods imported from the new world. So, German farmers had to choose between declining living standards and a long voyage to the new world. Notice, though, that by leaving Germany, German emigrants were making both the old world and the new world better off. Wages tend to rise as people depart since employers offer higher wages to attract replacement workers from the remaining population. In Germany, farm labor became more scarce as the laborers left for the new world.
In America, richer lands were brought into cultivation by newly arrived immigrants from Germany and other nations. And millions of immigrants from the failing farms of the old world were drawn into the booming manufacturing sector, settling in the growing urban centers of America.
But why didn’t immigration drive down wages in America? If fewer people in old-world countries tended to drive up wages, you would think that all those people pouring into the new world would drive down wages. Well, yes and no. The American economy of the nineteenth century was dynamic and growing. Immigrants did tend to drive down wage rates for some jobs, but many immigrants took advantage of economic freedom in America to start new businesses, sometimes founding whole industries. Immigrant entrepreneurs vastly stimulated the demand for labor and helped bid up wage rates.
Another of my ancestors fled Ireland where various policies had so distorted farming and impoverished the people that mass famine followed the failure of the potato crop. Millions died, but millions more escaped to America where they started over. When millions of desperately poor Irish men and women poured into American cities, along with millions of other immigrants, it was like pouring gasoline onto the American economic fire. A rapidly growing U.S. economy spurted ahead even faster.
The analogy is apt. Gasoline explodes when the circumstances are right, and for gasoline the circumstances are right when there is oxygen and a spark. For people, poverty is the oxygen and economic liberty is the spark. The Irish worked hard. Other immigrants did much the same, putting in long days and resting only on the Sabbath. Hard work and frugal habits paid off for most, and they left their children and grandchildren a better life.
Poverty still exacted a heavy toll. Long hours of mind-numbing factory labor paid for food and shelter but exhausted the minds and bodies of city workers, just as manual labor from dawn to sunset exhausted agricultural workers. These were transition years, when machines were slow and dangerous by today’s standards. The transition from agriculture to early manufacturing to the advanced manufacturing and service industries of today consumed much of the lives of our ancestors. These hard-working men and women spent their lives creating the wealth many of us take for granted.
Sharing the Wealth (of Opportunity)
So now that the average American is so stunningly wealthy by historical standards (though probably poor by some future standard), it is time to share the wealth — that is, the wealth of opportunity. Even with the massive taxation and economic intervention of our government (which should be ended), our society offers life-saving opportunities for the impoverished millions of the world. And a steady flow of new, industrious people would light new fires of freedom and prosperity not only here but all over the world.
The world benefits from emigration and immigration — economically, politically and culturally — innovation flourishes, wages rise, cultures mingle, and progress continues. The flow of peoples, like the flow of goods, should be free.This is an edited version of an article that appeared in The Foundation’s newsletter, The Market Liberal.