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.