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Over-Immigration and the Death of the Middle Class

Modern mass immigration harms all Americans.

By Petrarch  |  May 23, 2013

As the "Gang of Eight" immigration reform wends its tortuous way through Congress, we're getting a distinct feeling of deja vu.  Wasn't it just a few years ago that the massed forces of the elites on both sides of the aisle tried to ram an amnesty bill down America's throat, only to be defeated under an avalanche of furious voters?  And the economy was immeasurably better in 2007 than it's been at any time under Mr. Obama.

Just like then, anyone who doesn't want full open borders is being pilloried as a racist, nativist, sexist, homophobic Neanderthal.  Just like then, the usual suspects are promenading with scholarly studies showing that being awash in penniless illiterates will somehow make the rest of us as rich as Croesus.  Just like then, the few voices arguing otherwise are being shouted down by pro-immigration advocates both Republican and Democrat.

But much more than in 2007, it is patently obvious to any observer that, overall, immigration is bad for America.  Indeed, it cannot be otherwise, and for very good historical reasons.

Supply, Demand, and Labor Shortages

But... America was built on immigration!  Without immigrants, there wouldn't even be an America!

True.  However, has anything changed since the days of successful mass immigration, as opposed to our modern era of unassimilated division and destructive diversity?  Indeed it has: there is no frontier, and thus we have no use for tired, poor, huddles masses as we did then.

Consider the America of the 1800s through World War 1.  Our nation was growing, and most importantly, there were jobs and land for all.

Half the continent was basically empty.  Our government offered a free homestead to anyone willing to settle way out West.  What's more, it was perfectly practical for one man and his family to move onto an empty plot on Kansas or Dakota, and by dint of hard work, scratch out a living.

This is not to say that the early settlers had it easy; they didn't.  Lots of them died; many failed and moved home.  The saying was, "the cowards never started and the weak died along the way," but history records that there were hundreds of thousands of people who, while they never got rich, at least created a reasonably decent farming life out of nothing more than their bare hands and a few simple tools.

Do you need to know English in order to run a 19th century farm?  No, you don't; plants and animals don't care.  You don't even really need to know how to read in any language, as long as there's some sort of community you can communicate with and who will advise you as to what sort of seeds to plant and when.

To be blunt: historically, America offered a way for totally uneducated, untrained, unsophisticated people to make an independent life if they were willing to work very very hard.

That's why they came here from Europe:  Europe was crowded.  If you had no education or connections, there was no chance of finding anything better than the barest minimum of a life, if even that.

What could an uneducated person with no money do in Europe?  They couldn't farm - all the farmland was long since owned by somebody else already.  Maybe they could work 12 hour days 7 days a week in a factory for starvation wages, but at the slightest peep of protest they'd be out the door and replaced by someone starving on even less.  Europe had more people than it could put to good use, so the value of each individual person was very small.

Compare this to America.  There were factories and sweatshops in the United States, but there was a limit to how stingy and oppressive the owners could be.  If the workers got too ticked off, they could always walk out the door and off to some other employer who'd value them more, or off to the wild frontier to start over.

Of course life was hard in early America, but it truly was a land of opportunity - for all, not just the educated and rich.  The early unions were able to gain a foothold precisely because America didn't have starving masses that could easily take the place of angry workers.  The voting franchise was extended over time to people that owned no property, to blacks, and even to women, precisely because in a giant, mostly empty continent, every person really did matter.

In short: demand for labor in America far outstripped supply.  This led to higher wages and other rewards for workers, thus the famous American Dream.

Going the Wrong Way

For some while now, left-leaning writers have bemoaned the fact that the average American wage today is the same as in the 1980s.  Usually, this is blamed on weak labor unions and not enough taxes on the top 1%.  But that can't be the cause: the top 1% already pay around a third of all Federal tax collections while the bottom half pays nothing on net.

As far as labor unions, yes, some once-unionized manufacturing has moved to states in the South which don't allow union closed-shops.  A whole lot more of it has moved out of the country entirely.  How would stronger unions help?  They'd just drive jobs to China even faster than they are moving now.

No, there's a far more fundamentally obvious and deeply politically-incorrect explanation for American wage stagnation: We have vastly increased the supply of labor without increasing the demand for it, so of course the price of labor has plummeted.

First, starting in the 1970s, women entered into the workforce in droves.  Whether or not this was a good idea is a separate issue; the simple fact is that suddenly there were twice as many willing workers but the same number of people spending money.  Supply increased, demand stayed the same, wages dropped.  The modern American middle class family needs two incomes to provide what one worker was able to do in their grandparents' generation simply because there's more labor available.

Second, and more fixably, we made a policy decision to allow millions of uneducated immigrants.  From the point of view of labor supply, it doesn't matter whether these immigrants are legal or illegal.  All that matters is that they need to eat and want to work.

If there are millions of penniless Mexican peasants willing to work for next to nothing, of course every employer is going to pay them exactly that.  This can't help but drag down wages for the next level up of semi-skilled workers because there's always the threat of giving just a wee bit of training to the unskilled illegal that lets him take his boss' job.

Same for the relationship between the next two levels, and the next, and the next... all the way up until you reach people with unique and difficult-to-duplicate skills, who are much harder to replace and who've not been nearly so harmed by the modern economy.

For any ordinary person in an ordinary job, though, tolerance of mass immigration has turned modern American into something like the Europe our forefathers sought to escape.  For every job there are ten hungry workers willing to do it for less.

There is no frontier where anyone can go to make a life for themselves; from sea to shining sea, our businesses are trapped in a tight web of overregulation and overtaxation making it almost impossible for anyone not well-heeled to make a go.

Right Where They Want Us

So we see that four decades of generally liberal governance, and four+ years of extreme far-leftist governance, have put Americans right where our rulers want us: mired in desperation and insecurity.  Very few people can be assured of having a job tomorrow or of finding a new one, because unlike throughout most of American history, there are many people just as qualified and far more desperate who want your job.  And the foundation of this high demand for jobs is the vast over-immigration - not just illegal immigration, but mass immigration at all when we no longer have a frontier to absorb them.

Now, this isn't to say that all immigration is bad.  We can use all the millionaires and foreign entrepreneurs we can get, and many other countries wiser than us are offering incentives to the well-heeled to come start a business.

But we absolutely do not need any more illiterate peasants; we have plenty of unemployed illiterate peasants of our own, thank you very much, and the only way to let them earn enough money to become more than illiterate peasants is to reduce the supply.  Until we take this simple first step, neither our economy, nor inequality, nor America's unemployment problem are going to get any better.