The Migration Package Deal


Megan McArdle is still against a guest worker program:

What will we do with pregnant guest workers? For three to six months, at least, they won't be working. They'll need health care; who will provide it? Will we force companies to provide their guest workers health care, which will make them uneconomical compared to other low-skilled labor, or will the taxpayer foot the bill? Do we ship them home? Do we rewrite our constitution to exclude their babies from citizenship.

That's one troubling question. Here's another: do we let the guest workers date and marry American citizens, as they will? Because if we do, we'll find a lot of our guests have become permanent members of the household.

These are hard questions, so I'm going to avoid them. Economist Lant Pritchett answers them better than I can in an interview in the February issue of reason, but he also recognizes that the details of any such plan don't matter nearly as much as most of us think they do.

Here's why: Citizenships are club memberships you happen to be born with. Some clubs, like the Norway club, have truly awesome benefits. Others, like the Malawi club, offer next to none. Membership in each club is kept limited by club members, who understandably worry about the drain on resources that new members might represent. Wishing the U.S. would extend more memberships in 2008 isn't going to get you very far.

Conceptually, for whatever reason, most of us are in a place where we think labor market access and citizenships ought to be bundled. A Malawian can't come work here, we think, without the promise of a club membership, which is nearly impossible to get. This is an incredibly damaging assumption for two reasons: (1) memberships are essentially fixed in wealthy democratic societies (2) uneven labor market access is a major cause of global inequality. Decoupling the two leads to massive gains, as we see in Singapore, without the need to up memberships.

Here's another way to think about it: Clubs have positive duties toward their members, including those of the welfare state. But the negative duty not to harm outsiders exists prior to clubs, and denying people the ability to cooperate with one another violates their rights in a very basic way. Our current policy is one of coercively preventing cooperation. In saying "we can't let people into this country unless we confer upon them all the rights and duties of citizenship," you are saying that we need to violate their right to move freely and cooperate unless we can give them welfare benefits. But that's backwards.

This is why humanitarian economists can be enthusiastic about even a tiny guest worker program; the bundling of labor market access and citizenship is an obvious obstacle to global prosperity. Establishing the two as distinct matters.

So will we send home pregnant guest workers? I hope not, but maybe. Will we force companies to provide health insurance for young, healthy people who come here wanting to work? Probably. Will we allow guest workers to marry Americans? I don't see why not. But none of these concerns comes close to justifying a system that locks people into poverty and out of our labor markets based on conditions of birth.