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 ApplyI’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 misfortuneTo be christened Pat or DanBut to me it is an honorTo be born an IrishmanI started out to find the place,I got it mighty soonThere I found the old chap seatedHe was reading the TribuneI told him what I came forWhen he in a rage did fly“No!” he says, “You are a PaddyAnd no Irish need apply”Then I gets my dander risingAnd I’d like to black his eye,But I cooled it down and asked him whyNo Irish Need ApplySome do think it a misfortuneTo be christened Pat or DanBut to me it is an honorTo be born an Irishman.And says I to hime your ancesterscame over here like me,To try and make a livingin this land of libertyThey were greeted here with dignityAnd thought to reep and sow,By the Indians who owned this landThey didn’t tell you no,But I’ll get a job in spite of youFor I’m willing heart in hand,Thank God there’s better men than youAll over this great land.Some do think it a misfortuneTo be christened Pat or DanBut to me it is an honorTo be born an Irishman.And they say that in AmericaIt always is the planThat an Irishman is just as goodAs any other man,A home and hospitalityThey never will denyTo strangers here forever sayNo Irish need apply,But there’s some bad apples everywhereA dirty lot says I,And a decent man may never writeNo Irish need apply.Some do think it a misfortuneTo be christened Pat or DanBut to me it is an honorTo 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.