Tag: Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell on Immigration

Thomas Sowell is an influential and prolific writer whose books span the social sciences.  My shelves are full of them, decorated with underlines, marginalia, and dog-eared pages.  But in his recent columns and comments on immigration, Sowell has not approached that topic with the same rigorous attention to detail that he has in his books.  His reliance on incomplete historical examinations in his columns leads him to seemingly support a vast array of government interventions.  In these writings, Sowell makes the same mistakes that he accuses the “anointed” of making in many of his books.

In the column I’ll focus on, professor Sowell’s claim that today’s debate about immigration reform is not as fact-based as previous debates.  The implication is that a lack of facts will lead to poor policy decisions today whereas the policy changes 100 years ago were well thought out and fact-based.  He wrote:

A hundred years ago, the immigration controversies of that era were discussed in the context of innumerable facts about particular immigrant groups. Many of those facts were published in a huge, multi-volume 1911 study by a commission headed by Senator William P. Dillingham.

First, Sowell’s description of the Dillingham Commission’s commitment to facts is inaccurate.  It was a bi-partisan committee formed in 1907 to investigate the impacts of immigration on the United States – especially the so-called “new immigrants” from Eastern and Southern Europe.  The Commission was staffed by Progressives who believed that scientific managerial methods could effectively plan large parts of society and the economy by using the power of the government.  With the exception of one member, William S. Bennet of New York, the commission was stacked with members who had previously supported immigration restrictions. 

The Dillingham Commission produced 42 volumes by 1911, arguing that the “new immigrants” were fundamentally different from old immigrants who came from Western and Northern Europe.  Their culture, rates of economic success, and assimilative potential were supposedly severely constrained.  Those are the same claims made by today’s immigration opponents.  The Dillingham Commission suggested that immigration restrictions (ranging from relatively modest literacy tests to outright quotas and other massive interventions) could solve this “problem.” 

Thomas Sowell on the Economics of Immigration

Thomas Sowell, distinguished social scientist and columnist, recently criticized Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) for his statement that America needs immigration reform to avoid a “worker shortage.” Ryan was trying to explain that allowing more workers to come in the future would allow the economy to grow. He incorrectly used the word “shortage, which has a specific meaning in economics, and Sowell was right to criticize him for that. 

However, the economics of immigration are far more complex than Sowell’s writings let on. After dinging Ryan for his word choice, Sowell went on to explain that if American farmers don’t have enough workers, they will just raise their wages to attract Americans into the profession:

In agriculture, the farmers would obviously prefer to get workers who get low pay rather than workers they have to pay a higher wage… And as long as there is an unlimited supply of farm workers coming in from Mexico, they will never have to raise the wages very much… And it’s a time when millions of Americans are out of work, and are looking for any kind of work. And so this is utter nonsense.

If Sowell is going to quibble about words like “shortage,” it’s fair to criticize Sowell’s use of the word “unlimited” to describe the supply of farm workers coming from Mexico. If the supply of workers in agriculture was truly unlimited, or infinite, the wage would be 0. Furthermore, Americans are not “looking for any kind of work.” If they were, they would be lowering their wages quite a bit more than they currently are, until they become attractive hires. Relatively sticky wages even during periods of high unemployment are evidence that people are not “looking for any kind of work.”        

Issues of economic vocabulary aside, Sowell only described one possible outcome from a reduction in the supply of low-skilled immigrant farm workers: an increase in wages. The far more likely reaction is that American farmers will stop growing crops that require many workers. Without a large supply of low-skilled immigrant farm workers, labor-intensive farming would either shrink dramatically or disappear entirely.  American farmers would either grow different crops that could be profitably harvested mechanically or stop farming. American consumers would either import fruits and vegetables that require large numbers of workers from countries where those workers are abundant, or scale back their consumption of those food stuffs. Fewer workers also means fewer consumers of these agricultural goods, decreasing demand and partly offsetting some of the increase in price that would occur from a decrease in supply. Those effects would be the economically efficient outcome if increased labor scarcity was driven by changes in the free market. In this case, however, the increase in labor scarcity would come from legislation mandating such scarcity.