Immigration and Jobs

In an earlier post I asserted that immigration policy should be open borders to all peaceful people who want to come here to work. I noted that “This is not to say that some Americans won’t lose jobs to immigrants in the process.” Here is the promised discussion of the effects of immigration on domestic jobs.

Of course immigrants can take particular jobs that native-born Americans would otherwise hold. Does this mean unemployment for current American residents? Does it mean fewer or worse jobs for current American residents? No. Not if we allow some time for profit-seeking enterprisers to adjust to the immigration. (And sometimes no time at all, as we’ll discuss in a future post.)

The essential fact to understand is that the number of jobs is not fixed. Enterprising people create new jobs, for themselves and for others, as an economy thrives.

That does not mean that particular jobs are never lost; they are lost all the time. They are lost to immigration, yes, but even more so to technology. But those displaced, whether by technology or by immigration, get jobs sooner or later. Think of all the receptionists’ jobs lost to voicemail and toll collectors’ jobs lost to EZ Pass. What has become of those receptionists and toll collectors? Are they unemployed now? “Dishwasher” used to mean a person who washes dishes. But restaurants, hotels, and cafeterias have replaced those human dishwashers with mechanical dishwashers. More jobs lost. More unemployment? And how about the millions who have lost jobs to agricultural machinery?

In 1900 … it took nearly 40 of every 100 Americans to feed the country. Today [1992], it requires just three.

So do we have 37 percent unemployment in agriculture? No.

The 37 of every 100 workers no longer needed on the farm moved on to provide new homes, computers, pharmaceuticals, appliances, movies, stock trades, video games, gourmet meals and an array of other goods and services. The result is a material abundance that wouldn’t have been possible without labor released from farming,*

and released from answering phones, collecting tolls, and washing dishes.

The belief that there is only a fixed number of jobs in a country, so that if some immigrant gets one, some native-born resident must lose one, is a species of what economists call the lump of labor fallacy. A little thought shows that it is absurd. To say there are no more jobs is to say that there is no more work to be done. It would mean that, with the current workforce, every fulfillable human desire is being fulfilled. But look around us: everywhere there is work to be done, there are human desires to satisfy, trash to pick up, gardens to plant, medicines to invent, buildings to build.

As long as there is any good or service that someone values, that can be provided at a cost less than its value to that someone, there is useful work to be done. And because human beings have seemingly infinite capacity to enjoy new goods and services, and infinite ingenuity with which to contrive and produce them, there will always be work to be done. There will never be enough human talent. There will always be more jobs.

So it is not true that if an immigrant gets a job in America, some American must therefore go jobless. On the contrary, when an immigrant gets a job in America, that means the American who otherwise would have to do that job (if it is to be done at all) is now available to provide some other good or service that would not have been available were it not for the immigrant. And in even a moderately healthy economy, entrepreneurs will create new jobs producing that other good or service as long as there are people who want to work.

The jobs argument against immigration is invalid.

* The quotations are from the illuminating essay, “The Churn: The Paradox of Progress,” by Michael Cox and Richard Alm (p. 5).

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