I’ve long argued that one of the main reasons for Americans to oppose mass immigration policies (including sweeping forms of amnesty for the current illegal population) is the devastating impact such labor inflows are likely to have on productivity growth. (Just FYI, here’s my latest take.) One of my main reasons? The relative scarcity of labor throughout American history deserves considerable credit for the nation’s emergence as a global productivity and technology leader. And since robustly improving productivity is a major key to boosting national living standards on a sustainable basis, that’s always struck me as a pretty strong argument to keep labor in short supply by limiting immigration – which of course brings in more workers.
As a result, imagine my surprise to see that this view has just been supported by a leading writer for the British magazine The Economist – which has long loudly advocated for wider Open Borders.
The case for immigration as a productivity growth killer is solidly grounded in conventional economics. In that 2006 Congressional testimony linked above, I noted “When businesses conclude that the price of scarce labor has become excessive, powerful incentives emerge for them to substitute capital and technology for labor. And that means innovation.”
I then pointed out that “Our country owes much of its longstanding world leadership in most technology areas to this genuinely chronic scarcity and thus relatively high price of labor. Preventing shortages with immigration policy could weaken this proven spur to technological progress and all the benefits it brings.”
If you’re skeptical, here’s a link to the leading scholarly work connecting outstanding U.S. productivity performance and a chronically inadequate American labor supply. In fairness, not everyone agrees. Here’s a link to the most prominent rebuttal.
But I was understandably heartened to see the importance of scarce labor to productivity growth supported in this post by Ryan Avent, a senior editor and economics columnist for The Economist. According to Avent:
“Economic historians often explain divergences in patterns of industrialisation by pointing to differences in labour costs. British workers were expensive relative to workers on the continent and relative to British energy. British firms therefore had an incentive to develop and deploy new technologies that economised on labour and used a lot of energy: industrialisation! There’s more to the story than that, but that’s a pretty big component. Later something similar happened in America, where workers were even more expensive and resources even more abundant, and where the phenomenally productive ‘American system’ of manufacturing therefore emerged.”
Avent doesn’t explicitly make the immigration policy connection. But it’s glaringly obvious to all except the ideologically blinkered (or the hired guns of the American cheap labor lobby). Needless to say, I’ll be awaiting his next offering on the immigration policy debate with more than the usual interest. You should, too.