Thomas Sowell on the Economics of Immigration

Post by Alex Nowrasteh (occasional blogger for the site, joined April 2012; pieces published are by default republished from other sources with permission). See:

FINANCIAL INTEREST DISCLOSURE: Nowrasteh has a paid job as immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute (since April 15, 2012), and formerly had a similar role at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

This post was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog and is republished with the author’s permission.

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.

Insights from labor economics help explain why the American growing of fruits and vegetables would diminish if low-skilled immigration was ended. If the marginal value of the worker’s production is greater than the wage, it is profitable for a firm to hire that employee. For example, if a worker’s marginal value product (MVP) is $10 per hour, it is profitable to employ that worker at a wage of less than $10. (If MVP = wage, the employer is indifferent assuming no transaction costs). Based on the enormous range of work and welfare options open to Americans, farmers would likely have to pay wages so high to attract enough American workers that most labor-intensive agriculture would be unprofitable. Alabama provides an example.

Furthermore, it’s hard to see why it’s desirable to increase the wages of low-productivity farm workers by increasing their scarcity. Raising the wages in occupations that don’t require a high school degree is antithetical to other aspects of public policy that seek to increase the rate of high school graduation (whether or not that is a valid concern for government). There is evidence that more immigration further incentivizes Americans to actually finish high school. The government should not create a policy designed to increase wages for low-skilled farm workers that could drive relatively higher-skilled Americans into those occupations. Since educated workers have more choices in the labor market, the effect of attracting them into lower-productivity professions through changes in policy will likely diminish economic and productivity growth.

Speaking of immigration reform proponents, Sowell states, “They say Americans won’t do these jobs. These are jobs Americans have done for generations, if not centuries.” In this instance, Sowell cherry-picks his opponent’s arguments and chooses to address the ludicrous ones while ignoring those with substance. Americans sailed wind-powered ships around the world and used horses instead of cars for centuries. That, however, is not an argument that a government law should increase the scarcity of modern ships and cars. Sowell is right that Americans could do these low-skilled agriculture jobs. We could also become hunter-gatherers again. But that does not mean that we should, if cheaper and better options are available. Sowell does not say that we should exclude low-skilled immigrants but his tone and the conspicuous absence of him criticizing economically ignorant arguments from the anti-immigration-reform side are serious indications of his opinions on the issue.         

Furthermore, Sowell is right that the economy would adjust to a decrease in the supply of low-skilled labor, but he fails to mention that it would do so by shrinking. The economy would likewise adjust if the American government declared that electricity was illegal or all imports were banned. Arguing that the economy would adjust to artificially created scarcity does not justify creating such scarcity through government fiat.     

Immigration restrictions increase labor scarcity, especially in niches of the labor market where relatively few Americans work. The main effect of increasing labor scarcity by further restricting the supply of low-skilled immigrant workers will not be to raise the wages of Americans, thereby drawing them to pick crops; it would be to kill large portions of the agricultural sector and other portions of the economy that demand large numbers of relatively low-skilled workers to operate most efficiently and profitably. 

Sowell’s surface explanation of how wages would adjust without low-skilled immigration, which leaves out how the economy would shrink and other well-known effects, is written in a way to obfuscate rather than enlighten. On this issue, Sowell ignores the lessons he has developed throughout his career, and instead seems to support extensive government interventions (his writing is cagey enough that he could claim to not support any policies, but the tone is clear enough) with little evidence besides anecdotes.

4 thoughts on “Thomas Sowell on the Economics of Immigration”

  1. Great post, Alex.

    My theory about Sowell is that since gaining popularity as a syndicated columnist, he developed an audience, and he has been telling that audience what it wants to hear.

    1. I can’t resist the temptation to add that this seems to well describe another economist on the opposite side of the political spectrum (albeit one who is much more accomplished than Sowell).

  2. I wouldn’t be surprised if entire books have been written about agricultural labor. It’s that complicated, as this blog entry rightly suggests.

    It’s important to keep in mind the non-economic reasons Americans avoid farm work. Just a few examples:
    1) People are accustomed to thinking that only Hispanics/migrants/whoever do that kind of work. They might fear feeling socially out-of-place in such a work environment. Some would be embarrassed to say that’s their job.
    2) Statistically speaking about accidents and injuries, it’s dangerous work (though I’m not sure how many Americans actually know that).
    3) Few Americans have spent the time developing the physical stamina needed to do some kinds of farm labor. Farm managers would have to be very accommodating in allowing Americans to gradually increase their work hours (and work split shifts in the cooler morning and evening hours, to avoid hot mid-day hours). In cases where an entire field requires harvest relatively quickly, this might not be feasible.
    4) At least where I live, I have very seldom seen farm jobs advertised on craigslist. I wonder whether farmers seek their workers by alternative channels that most Americans are unaware of.
    5) Farmers might fear that Americans would be more likely to file worker’s compensation claims or lawsuits when they become injured on the job.

    The farm labor market is unusual also because the US government offers seasonal visas for agriculture workers (most migrate to/from Mexico I believe). I’m guessing the government does not offer enough visas, considering how many unlawfully-present (“illegal”) immigrants are working on farms.

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