“No Irish need apply”

First, this post is not anti-Irish. I’m not Irish, at all, but I attended Notre Dame (the “Fighting Irish”), and I lived in Scotland for a while when I was 16 and love Scottish music, and maybe even more, Irish music. There was an Irish band called Colcannon my family and I used to listen to when I was a kid. I like to sing Irish songs like “The Fields of Athenry,” “Raglan Road,” “The Patriot Game,” “The Sally Gardens,” and “There’s Whiskey in the Jar.” In 2008, I went to a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Lousiville, Kentucky, and rode one of the floats singing and playing guitar in the rain, to cheering crowds. More generally, Americans nowadays have a soft spot for the Irish. St. Patrick’s Day, Ireland’s national holiday, is now more or less recognized as an American holiday too. I think John Kerry tried to pretend at one point to be Irish, and Joe Biden joked that his running mate was “O’Bama”– the point is not to mock politicians, but that there was a perception that Irishness is an electoral asset. Two of the most popular presidents in US history, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, were of Irish ancestry. Everyone now more or less sees Irish immigration as a success story that America can rejoice and take pride in.

But it wasn’t always thus, and part of the folklore I grew up with is that back in the bad old days, there used to be prejudice against the Irish, with employment advertisements sometimes saying “No Irish need apply.” There’s a song about it. You can listen to it here, it’s fun. Lyrics:

No Irish Need Apply

I’m a decent boy just landed
From the town of Ballyfad
I want a situation,
And want it very bad
I have seen employment advertised
It’s just the thing” says I
But the dirty spalpeen ended with
No Irish Need Apply’ “
“Whoa,” says I, “that’s an insult
But to get the job I’ll try”
So I went to see the blackguard
With his “No Irish Need Apply”
Some do count it a misfortune
 To be christened Pat or Dan
But to me it is an honor
To be born an Irishman
I started out to find the place,
I got it mighty soon
There I found the old chap seated
He was reading the Tribune
I told him what I came for
When he in a rage did fly
“No!” he says, “You are a Paddy
And no Irish need apply”
Then I gets my dander rising
And I’d like to black his eye,
But I cooled it down and asked him why
No Irish Need Apply
Some do think it a misfortune
To be christened Pat or Dan
But to me it is an honor
To be born an Irishman.
And says I to hime your ancesters
 came over here like me,
To try and make a living
in this land of liberty
They were greeted here with dignity
And thought to reep and sow,
By the Indians who owned this land
They didn’t tell you no,
But I’ll get a job in spite of you
For I’m willing heart in hand,
Thank God there’s better men than you
All over this great land.
Some do think it a misfortune
To be christened Pat or Dan
But to me it is an honor
To be born an Irishman.
And they say that in America
It always is the plan
That an Irishman is just as good
As any other man,
A home and hospitality
They never will deny
To strangers here forever say
No Irish need apply,
But there’s some bad apples everywhere
A dirty lot says I,
And a decent man may never write
No Irish need apply.
Some do think it a misfortune
To be christened Pat or Dan
But to me it is an honor
To be born an Irishman.

The whole song is a splendid libertarian parable. The immigrant comes seeking work. He faces discrimination: “No Irish need apply.” No one doubts his right to come. No one doubts the employer’s legal right to discriminate, but the narrator thinks it’s morally offensive to discriminate. He goes to meet the employer, and while he doesn’t get the job, he gives him his moral comeuppance by expressing his contempt, appealing by the way to the Pilgrims as a precedent, as I did in my last post. In spite of his disappointment and the temporary setback, he’s confident that he’ll get a job, since he’s confident that only some employers discriminate against the Irish. One of the lessons of the economics of discrimination is that it shouldn’t matter much if a few people discriminate, as long as many others don’t.

Now, Americans today tend to look back on “No Irish need apply” with a certain disdain. Those were the bad old days of racism. But of course, to be allowed to immigrate, but then to face discrimination from certain employers, is a trivial injury compared to not being allowed to come at all. What I wonder is, did “No Irish need apply” clauses help the cause of 19th-century open borders? Does the fact that no one then doubted that private discrimination was perfectly licit help to explain why the country was so much more welcoming to immigrants then? One response to nativists is: “Hey, if you don’t like immigrants, fine, don’t interact with them. But please don’t use force to prevent us from interacting with them, either.” But this isn’t a completely compelling argument when there are anti-discrimination laws on the books, which can apply to immigrants. I’m not expert in discrimination law, but it seems immigrants can enjoy protection:

Immigrants still face discrimination in the workplace. Statistics from 2009, the  latest year available, show that complaints of discrimination based on national  origin increased 5 percent, and religious discrimination claims increased 3  percent. Indeed, workplace discrimination complaints remain at historically  elevated levels, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission  saw 93,277 complaints in fiscal year 2009 (ended September 30), the  second-highest level in its history.

Now, suppose that as part of a keyhole solution, discrimination against immigrants under a new type of visa was explicitly permitted. I’m assuming a ceteris paribus condition: it’s still illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, etc. in hiring, renting accommodations, accepting customers, etc., but it’s legal to ask to see a passport and specify what passports you’ll accept up front, or take it into account. You could advertise a job, or an apartment, or whatever, with the clause “No Irish need apply”– or “No Chinese need apply,” “No Egyptians need apply,” etc., meaning of course Irish, Chinese, or Egyptian citizens: American citizens of Irish, Chinese, or Egyptian descent would be protected as now.

The desirable effects of this are easy to see. Nativists could have their way, to some extent, as far as their own lives are concerned. If you don’t like immigrants, work for a business that doesn’t hire them, live in a housing development that doesn’t lease to them, go to restaurants that don’t serve them. Nativists could have their enclaves. Entrepreneurs that aren’t racist per se might find it in their interest to engage in statistical discrimination, erring on the side of caution– or perhaps of patriotism– by saying “US citizens preferred.” Different nationalities could establish reputations, so that you might have firms that hire only US citizens, Japanese and Chinese, but no Latin Americans, or only US citizens and Russians. One question is whether discrimination against US citizens would be allowed. This could go either way. On the one hand, maybe it’s all to the good if Chinese or Nigerian business want to set up businesses here, only hiring their own, but paying US taxes, buying from US suppliers, serving US customers. On the other hand, maybe that’s a threat to national solidarity or something, and we’d prefer to force open opportunities for Americans in any operations foreigners chose to run. Or mix-and-match, e.g., no discrimination against Americans in jobs, but residential discrimination against Americans is fine. I’m assuming there’s a path to citizenship, and legalizing discrimination against foreigners would encourage people to take it, so as to come under the aegis of anti-discrimination laws. If a large share of employment opportunities were closed to Tahitians, for example, Tahitian immigrants would have an extra incentive to seek citizenship. I doubt discrimination would be too much of a problem, though. Like the singer of “No Irish Need Apply,” immigrants who encountered discrimination in some places would find others willing to hire them, house them, and sell them things.

I’m vague uneasy about this suggestion, though, because the norm of non-discrimination has become so entrenched in American culture that to make open discrimination of any kind explicitly legal seems vaguely like a betrayal of fundamental principles of justice. Discrimination based on dislike or contempt of others seems reprehensible, but statistical discrimination can be quite rational, and while it’s unfair to those discriminated against in the sense that a job or whatever is not allocated on the basis of objective merit, it’s not a violation of someone’s natural rights not to offer him a job. Prohibiting discrimination is problematic, too, because it presumes the law can look inside people’s heads and judge their motives, which is spurious, and I suspect that anti-discrimination laws impede the efficiency of labor markets as they sometimes force employers not to hire the best person but rather someone who looks like the best person on paper so that the hiring decision could be defended in court. This seems like a small price to pay for the drastic decline in racism in American society since the 1960s. Much of the decline in discrimination results not from the law per se but from a sea change in social mores, which now regard racial discrimination with contempt. This might make legalization of discrimination against certain classes of immigrants a dead letter, since social mores would make it impossiblede facto–employers might just refuse to do it, even if it was legal and in their economic interest– or on the other hand, legally permitted discrimination against immigrants might undermine the anathematization of discrimination in American society generally, and threaten to unravel the progress in race relations since the 1960s. I doubt this would happen, but I would worry about the possibility.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

8 thoughts on ““No Irish need apply””

  1. Discrimination by national origin is common in the workplace in Singapore, and recently led to the first strike in Singapore in over 25 years, when Chinese bus drivers grew tired of being paid less than Malaysian bus drivers: http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/asia/323194/chinese-bus-drivers-stage-work-stoppage-in-singapore

    Malaysia and Singapore, as far as I know, both lack discrimination laws and both countries either explicitly or implicitly discriminate based on race, religion, sex, and national origin in public policy. It’s very common in Malaysia to see employment or residential classifieds asking for applicants to be only of a certain race and/or gender (some employers nowadays soften the blow by only specifying language requirements, which tend to accomplish the same thing as discriminating on race).

    This may explain why certain keyhole solutions popular with moderate restrictionists (work permits without any path to residency/citizenship for low-skilled workers) have been politically tenable in Malaysia and Singapore.

    With respect to a country that already has anti-discrimination laws on the books, and usually also accompanying anti-discrimination social mores, I wonder if permitting discrimination based on national origin might be a solution in search of a problem. It’s certainly worth approaching restrictionists to see if this might allay their concerns, but I’ve not heard anyone (at least in the US) agitating for abolition of anti-discrimination laws with respect to nationality (whereas I have encountered complaints about anti-discrimination laws with respect to sexual orientation/family status). My impression is that rather than permitting discrimination based on nationality, one could just as easily permit discrimination based on class of visa and accomplish virtually the same thing — which is already the case in the US and I believe most other countries with anti-discrimination laws (“We do not sponsor” strikes fear in the heart of any US-based international student seeking to stay on after graduation).

    Of course, there are some activists who advocate abolition of all discrimination in visas (i.e. true, literal open borders). I think the more appropriate thing to do first is to revisit the visa regime, which seems to me to be quite poorly thought out in most countries, and also to revisit the first principles underlying immigration policy (since it seems a key underpinning of most any immigration policy is “We have the right to do anything we want to foreigners who aren’t legally resident in our country, and we can be as arbitrary, dishonest, and opaque as we like about it”). True open borders is a good utopic end goal, but it’s about as realistic or attainable as true free trade. We could end most of the evils presented by the immigration status quo by simply rationalising the workings of immigration policy.

  2. Nice post. I agree with you that allowing discrimination in employment will not have a big effect. The main reason I believe this: employers are legally required to discriminate against “illegal” immigrants, and despite this, large numbers of employers willingly hire these immigrants at considerable risk to their business. Of course, a lot of employers choose not to hire illegal immigrants for fear of the law, so a regime where discrimination against specific classes of immigrants is allowed but not mandated is an improvement for immigrants. This post by Bryan Caplan makes the point better than I can.

    Even for legal immigrants, as John pointed out, there is plenty of scope for employers to discriminate against immigrants at large (though perhaps not in a nationality-specific manner) by refusing to sponsor H1Bs or other temporary work visas. De facto, employers have considerable leeway in matters of hiring and visa sponsorship and employers who have a soft spot for immigrants from certain countries can probably tweak the process to get only those immigrants, even if this technically runs afoul of discrimination law. It’s hard for people who don’t get sponsored to sue from outside the US.

  3. In response to “solution in search of a problem,” yes and no. It’s a solution to a problem we don’t have right now because the borders are (largely) closed! Since immigrants are still a fairly small share of the workforce in the US and other countries, and since immigration restrictions try to filter entrants in a certain way, private employers, landlords, and merchants don’t feel a strong need to discriminate against immigrants, or particular categories of immigrants, over and above the forms of discrimination that are more or less required by law, in order to protect themselves from traits of certain classes of immigrants which might be undesirable for certain purposes and unobservable except via statistical discrimination.

    If you go back to the “No Irish need apply” case, it was probably true that the Irish, relative to other immigrants, had more than their fair share of certain kinds of problems, e.g., drunkenness, rowdiness. Whether it was true or not, it will do for an example. Suppose Irish employees tend not to show up to work on time because they are hung over. Nothing that is readily observable in an interview will indicate this: If you ask a candidate “Do you have a problem with alcohol abuse?” they will say no. And sometimes that’s true, even when the candidate is Irish. But statistically, Irish are (in this example) more likely to be heavy drinkers and consequently unreliable employees. In that case, “No Irish need apply” may be sound business strategy.

    It seems that one of BK’s main concerns with immigration is that productivity may depend on forms of segregation. This is obvious in classrooms– you have to sort students by ability in order to teach a class at a pace suitable to everyone– and maybe something similar applies to the economy as a whole. If efficient sorting of people into productive peer teams is the goal, immigration restrictions are an extremely crude instrument for achieving it. But if letting someone into the country means that they have to be treated “equally,” in the sense that they have to have the same access to jobs, housing, and services as natives do, unless the grounds for discrimination can be documented and is directly and demonstrably related to the item in question so as to satisfy a court, then that might give some grounds for not letting them in. If we allow natives to segregate themselves from immigrants to some extent within the country, in voluntary settings, that helps to make the social fabric less vulnerable to dilution– while still prohibiting discrimination among natives.

    It’s an interesting question whether discrimination is “really” unjust or not. Is it unjust *in general,* or is an anti-discrimination norm a “keyhole solution,” so to speak, to the unique American history of slavery and racial segregation? I’m not sure.

    One interesting possibility is that legalizing discrimination could serve as a substitute, or partial substitute, for migration tariffs. Suppose a lot of well-off native Americans wanted to help comparatively low-skilled natives avoid seeing their living standards decline as a result of competition from natives. “Hire American” might be their way to help out people whose lives would be disrupted by a change which, though a giant step towards justice and the common good, nonetheless came as a harsh surprise for people whose life expectations depended, unbeknownst to them, on a comprehensive regime of labor protectionism that held their earning power far above what the world demand for their skills would justify.

    Legalizing discrimination on the basis of nationality is a solution to problems which aren’t too serious now, but would be under open borders. Or to put it another way, a step from legally MANDATED discrimination against foreigners, except for a small class of foreigners against whom discrimination is not mandated nor even allowed, to legally PERMITTED, but optional, discrimination against foreigners, would still be a big step towards a fairer world, while maybe mitigating a lot of risks.

    1. “If we allow natives to segregate themselves from immigrants to some extent within the country, in voluntary settings,”

      Permitting demographically unrepresentative firms and schools to exist surely helps in those areas. In multiethnic developing countries gated communities reduce crime against rich minorities to more manageable levels. Politics and the threat of political action are involuntary though.

      “But statistically, Irish are (in this example) more likely to be heavy drinkers and consequently unreliable employees. In that case, “No Irish need apply” may be sound business strategy.”

      In practice one can almost always get almost all of the value by looking more directly at the things that national origin might proxy for. Criminal record, work history, psychometric tests, and a flexible job market (absent minimum wages or regulations that make “hire and fire” prohibitively expensive) are quite powerful.

      A more immediate problem for Western countries is that using such predictors is socially and legally discouraged whenever they have a disparate impact across protected and non-protected classes, based on an assumption that all group differences in performance reflect prohibited discrimination in one way or another. Tolerating disparate impact while prohibiting disparate treatment would provide almost all of the benefit in exchange for less change in nondiscrimination norms.

      “It seems that one of BK’s main concerns with immigration is that productivity may depend on forms of segregation. This is obvious in classrooms– you have to sort students by ability in order to teach a class at a pace suitable to everyone”


      From a Chinese dataset:

      “Our evidence is strongest in showing that peer groups operate in a nonlinear manner and
      all individuals respond negatively to an increase in the variation of peer quality. The
      marginal effect of a one percent increase in the quality of peers on student achievement is
      equivalent to between 8 −15% of a one percent increase in one’s own earlier achievement.
      We find that peer effects operate in a heterogenous manner. High ability students
      benefit more from having higher achieving schoolmates and from having less variation in
      peer quality than students of lower ability.”

      One thing worth noting is that in a world of open borders internal variation could increase beyond the levels historically observed in the United States, affecting both the low and high ends.


      “Asians, on the other hand, make up 72.5 percent of Stuyvesant’s student body (they are 13.7 percent of the city’s overall public school population), a staggering increase from 1970, when they were 6 percent of Stuyvesant students, according to state enrollment statistics. Back then, white students made up 79 percent of Stuyvesant’s enrollment; this year, they are 24 percent, and 14.9 percent systemwide.

      Hispanic students are 40.3 percent of the system. Currently, they make up 2.4 percent of Stuyvesant’s enrollment, while blacks, who make up 32 percent of the city’s public school students, are 1.2 percent.”

      Asians are 141 times as likely as black students in New York city to attend Stuyvesant (with its purely academic admissions criteria), and 89 times as likely as Hispanic students. This may be more politically unstable and result in more social tension than smaller group differences.

      Already, there is significant anti-Asian discrimination in universities and schooling contexts, along the lines of anti-Jewish discrimination early in the 20th century:


      “– and maybe something similar applies to the economy as a whole.”

      Here is Garrett Jones’ exploration of skill complementarities as a possible explanation for IQ externalities. Here there are some sectors where production is easily ruined by a single worker’s errors (productivity is the product of workers’ skills), so production therein is maximized by segregation by worker skill. In addition, there is a diminishing returns “foolproof sector” where production goes with individual worker skill.

      This is the model that Jones refers to in this statement:

      “An even more important implication of my research is that low-skilled immigrants should be allowed to work in the world’s richest countries: Low-skilled immigrants have little or no net effect on the wages of the citizens of rich countries, but their lives massively improve when they are allowed to work in these countries.”

      Although when talking about institutions he has different things to say:


  4. Why and how do you think that “No Irish Need Apply” no longer applies ? When it so definitely does. My accent gets detected and then I’m asked if I am “Irish.” The common return follows another tale of some Irish great grandmother, the most common pick off the tree real or imagined and by the constancy of this most same reply, strikes me as untrue..Embarrassing. All the more when I ask the questioner “where from Eire did they come from ?” and to that there’s no reply. Begorrah, and all that. Fermoy, Athenry, Dunlaoghaire – Dublin – ? I say little in replies that dole out masses of logic and diagramatics in American speech, leaving faith to itself for the listener to work out quickly..which they don’t. And so the “fill in the blanks” part of my usual speech does not get digested and then they think that I am hiding something because of the lack of encyclopaedic answerings.. Then they see their “Irish Fantasies” blown to ribbons by everyday realities..and against my Irish feelings..and during this brief conversation, I watched another Irishman, just off the boat, get spoken to in such a terrible manner, as he asked about a job washing cars for a Car Rental agency labelles “Avis” cars rentals.. I remain aghast, distrusting and saddened to see the still extant prejudices of “No Irish Need Apply.” A Dubliner.

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