[This article appeared in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Fall 1998, pp. 281-284.]


Comments on Miles Wolpin's "Permissive Immigration..."

Dwight D. Murphey

Wichita State University


            The article by Miles Wolpin that precedes this Comment [in the Fall 1998 issue of the Journal] continues a growing literature that explores the plight of workers in the changing world economy. The editors of the Journal have thought it not only important enough to publish; they also feel its content should stimulate thoughtful debate as people of varying persuasions work to sort out their thoughts on a very complex subject. We will add to that discussion with the following observations in the context of Wolpin's article:

The Fragmentation of Existing Ideologies

            As the article illustrates, both "Left" and "Right" are by now clearly divided within themselves over many of the most fundamental economic and social issues.            

            Within American conservatism, there are those who see Free Trade and open immigration as essential parts of their long-standing support for a market economy, a cosmopolitan world outlook, and opposition to government intervention. At the same time, there are conservatives who believe just as strongly that borders open to trade and immigration will, under the circumstances of the world today, destroy the very foundations of "classical liberal" individualism in the United States. To this latter view, open borders will bring a displacement of millions of American workers and a loss of cultural identity - perhaps even national existence if separatist movements arise - as the existing population is inundated by waves of people coming in from the Third World.

            Wolpin's article makes clear an equally sharp division within the Left. For almost two centuries, the central feature of the Left has been a profound alienation against the predominant commercial ("bourgeois") culture within the United States and Europe. The intellectual culture has sought allies of all kinds in its struggle against that culture. In its support for "multiculturalism," much of the Left has in recent years found the ideal allies for that process of destruction, since the potential for immigration from the Third World is limitless. If that influx continues, European and American societies will become unrecognizable within just a few years. It can hardly be surprising, however, that many people on the Left don't welcome this, since it undercuts so fatally the interests of the very workers in the United States and Europe that the Left has so traditionally championed. Those workers are threatened with an imminent reduction to Third World living standards as they are thrown into competition with billions of people from other continents who receive a pittance for their work. Not coincidentally, a defense of the living standards of American and European workers presupposes a defense of the economies and societies in which those workers have lived. This leads to the cultural conservatism that we see in Wolpin's article. Significantly, it leads also to this branch of the Left's standing in opposition to the elite, which includes many intellectuals, that is now leading the way toward globalism. This means a major division within the intellectual culture, which, despite all sorts of bitterly contested variations of viewpoint within itself, has so long served as the dynamic force behind the world Left.

            It is going to be interesting in the years to come to see whether the corresponding branches of Left and Right on each side of this divide, branches that have so long been bitter enemies but which now have so much in common, will coalesce into common outlooks and a shared political and ideological future. Right now, it seems hard to believe that Pat Buchanan and a labor Democrat can be political, intellectual associates, much less friends. Only time will tell; the members of each corresponding branch will first have to get to know each other a lot better than they do now. For Wolpin favorably to cite both Chomsky and Brimelow, suggests that they can.

The Need to Look Farther "Along the Curve"

            What is missing from Wolpin's discussion is, however, what is most important. A glance at his references at the end of the article reveals that he has not brought Jeremy Rifkin's The End of Work into his thinking; nor has he included the ideas contained in my article "The 'Warp-Speed' Transformation of the World Economy: A Discussion of Ten (of the Many) Recent Books" in the Fall 1996 issue of this Journal.

            These omissions suggest, and the content of his article confirms, that Wolpin is looking only at the devastating impact on employment of foreign imports, outsourcing and immigration; i.e., of competition to workers in the developed economies from workers in the low-pay countries. Thus, he is looking entirely at an intermediate phenomenon, not at what promises to be the overriding source of worker displacement, which is non-labor-intensive technology through robotics, biotechnology and computers. He has yet to include in his analysis the fact that, before long, even the low-pay workers of the Third World will be undercut by processes that render them non-competitive.

            This technological displacement is coming upon us rapidly, though its impact has been disguised by the recent boom. No doubt we need to be actively concerned about what happens to people between now and the culmination of this technological revolution, but the social solutions we adopt for the intermediate stage should be informed by what will be necessary in the soon-to-arrive "longer run." Millions of people will be out of work, or at least marginalized into nonremunerative work, because of technology; and this will occur even if we seal our borders both to trade and to immigrants. Stopping the massive influx of immigrants will help the workers who are already here in the intermediate stage (during which competition from low-pay foreign labor will be important), and will continue to be vitally important in the long run to preserve the culture; but a halt to immigration won't solve the ultimate problem of worker displacement. Tariffs, for their part, will soften or even block the intermediate impact of foreign competition on workers, but they also won't be a solution against technological displacement.

            No, what is needed is a vision that takes into account both the intermediate and the long terms. A vision of that sort is possible, and draws upon both socialist and classical liberal free market roots. We need to start considering the idea of a "shared market economy" in which everyone in the society owns shares in index mutual funds (i.e., funds that hold stock broadly across the entire economy) and draws an income from them. This is a form of "guaranteed annual wage," but with the aspect that the market economy continues vigorously, probably on a global basis, with its rapid innovation and its drive for low-cost production. The idea involves a mixture of redistributionism with free-market economics, but in a way that does not impede business firms in their quest for profits or in their on-going innovation. (As shares are purchased to distribute among the population, capital will have been pumped into the firms whose shares are being purchased. The firms will later pay dividends on those shares just as they do now.) This is an idea that requires much more elaboration, of course, than we can give in a short comment.

            In the coming world of technological displacement, an emphasis on work as the source of peoples' livelihood won't hold up. If that is so, we see how deeply we are going to have to rethink almost everything we have taken for granted, either as members of the Left or the Right.